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Mendelssohn's Passion


Mendelssohn-Bach: Matthaus Passion Clara Rottsolk, soprano; Luthien Brackett, mezzo-soprano; Dann Croakwell, tenor (Evangelist); Isaiah Bell, tenor; William Sharp, baritone (Jesus); Enrico Lagasca, bass; Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Bach Festival Orchestra/Christopher Jackson Analekta 953 Disc One: Total Time: 62:15 Disc Two: Total Time: 63:08 Recording:   ****/**** Performance: ****/****


At the end of the 20th Century, there was a burgeoning push to try and perform music in the “authentic” or “period” instruments for respective periods.  Starting first through a revisiting of Baroque performance practice, this soon extended into the subsequent eras.  What this allowed was a sort of stripping away of the sort of Romantic excesses that had drained some of the dance-like quality of Baroque pieces and had made them more museum-like pieces of awe.  One might consider that it is the work at hand that is the great-grandfather of that beginning practice.  Felix Mendelssohn was responsible for helping bring Johann Sebastian Bach’s music out of its use as academic exercises and study to concert audiences.  His connection to Bach’s music goes back to his aunt’s, Sarah Levy, influence.  She had been a student of both W.F. and C.P.E. Bach and had a variety of manuscripts from the Bach family.  Mendelssohn would learn well from his counterpoint studies of this music and application in his own work.  However, it was his decision to perform the St. Matthew Passion (1727) that would indeed change the awareness of Bach’s music and legacy.

The present recording is from a new Barenreiter edition of the score by musicologist Malcom Bruno.  Using Mendelssohn’s manuscripts, fragments, and performance scores and parts, Bruno has culled together a score that provides a chance to revisit that famous 1829 performance.  Mendelssohn subsequently tweaked what was done then off and on and these attempts have also been adjusted into the present edition.  Most notably, listeners will hear these changes in instrumentation.  The harpsichord is now being performed on a fortepiano (which is an interesting and nice touch here).  Clarinets provide an unique color in the orchestra and a contrabassoon part also adds a bit of depth (likely helping with organ pedal material).  Dynamic contrasts are also more apparent with added shaping of phrases adding to the emotional impact of the music.

The result then is an opportunity for us to enter into a specific historical moment.  A time to hear this Baroque piece from the viewpoint of an early 19th-Century composer and audience.  It was not uncommon for composers of the time to revisit works of the past.  Here it is just the immensity of the task that is perhaps the impressive component.  It is an adaptation that honors Bach’s music while also helping to arrange it more for the orchestra of the time. 

One thing that is most noticeable in this recording is the way the wind colors float across the orchestra.  The flute color is especially interesting when it is applied in places like the alto recitative before the beautiful aria “Du Lieber Heiland du” with its decidedly warm color.  In the recitatives, there is a bit more warming and Romantic quality at times. (One of the many ways Mendelssohn contemporized the music for his audiences.)  This provides a heart-melting beauty in “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” duet.  The fortepiano adds its own unique flair in these recitatives with warmer string writing often helping serve as a bridge into the following arias or choral interjections.  The chorales are given a beautiful full choral color that is quite moving.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) is in a way the result of Mendelssohn’s historic concert.  It is the oldest Bach Choir in the US, founded in 1898, and gave the first performances of Bach’s B Minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio in 1900!  This rich heritage makes it a perfect group to explore this new edition that focuses both on Mendelssohn’s period practice understanding and his own alterations.  Underlying this performance too is that sense of forward motion and dance-like energy that undergirds most Baroque music.  Now it is just a bit fuller and warmer, and perhaps a bit more emotionally charged than before.  The chorus itself is simply gorgeous and the highlight here with fine soloists traversing the requisite solo sections well.  The orchestra responds well here with a balance that sometimes leans a bit to the Baroque, and sometimes a little to the 19th Century.  But it sounds quite natural and shows the dedicated work of their conductor, Christopher Jackson.  Those familiar with Mendelssohn’s own oratorio Elijah (1846) can hear in this adaptation of Bach’s work all the gestures and stylings, as well as a bit of structural foundation, that will appear in that later work. 

The release from Analekta will be both digital as well as on CD and is the world premiere of this new edition.  It was recorded at the performance last November.  Audience noise is nonexistent, except for the applause that appears at the end of each part.  This results in a bit of underlying energy that is evident in everyone’s sense of the specialness of the performance.  The sound also captures well the ambience in the chapel setting.  This lends the choir a bit fuller sound and can sometimes obscure text a bit, but nothing that is out of the ordinary for a choir of this size.  Balance between the orchestra and choir is equally excellent.  The shaping of the music by the choir also is consistent across the performance and when they enter for the familiar chorale tunes the effect is quite marvelous.   

This is a St. Matthew Passion that will have its own unique place in the discography.  It is easily recommended for its performance and window into a unique hybrid adaptation.  Texts are not included.  The music is lovingly performed with its own sense of restrained passion and admiration which makes for a moving experience.  The release appears just in time for Holy Week.



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