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Seen and Heard Recital Review

FELIX MENDELSSOHN: Bach, St Matthew's Passion, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roger Norrington (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5th February, 2005 (AO)

A premiere of St Matthew's Passion? This one certainly was – the first performance in this country of Mendelssohn's 1829 edition of Bach's great work. Lest one be up in arms about edited Bach, it's important to remember that without Mendelssohn, the revival of Bach might have taken much longer and had less influence. This concert was a serious effort to set the record straight on Mendelssohn's role as a composer who bridged both the classical and the Romantic. In an age before recording and readily available scores, musicians and audiences were generally uninformed about the past: Mendelssohn was a pioneer in many ways, restoring respect for the past while at the same time creating innovative new music for his time.


Mendelssohn only obtained his copy of the Bach score by sheer luck – Beethoven had no access to the two manuscripts. One wonders how the face of western classical music might have been reshaped if Beethoven had a doting great aunt who had studied with CPE Bach. As Roger Norrington explained in his pre concert talk, St Matthew’s Passion had long been considered “unperformable”- after all, even for Bach himself it was a major undertaking. Bach was known then for his chamber music. When young Mendelssohn broached the idea of reviving the Passion to his teacher, Zelter, who loved Bach dearly, Zelter tried to dissuade him. But Bach meant so much to Mendelssohn that the teenager went ahead anyway. Thus we have this version of the St Matthew’s Passion, edited pragmatically so it could be performed for new audiences and new times. Far from being a case of HIP performance, it was “new music” honouring on the old.

Mendelssohn's edition reflects concert practice at the time: it was not thought that audiences could sit through a full performance of “new music” so much of the original was scaled down. Mendelssohn was later to restore many of the arias in 1841, when audiences were more amenable, that Leipzig version remaining well known for another hundred years. On the other hand, Mendelssohn was careful to keep what was most essential to Bach – the narrative of faith. Almost all the Evangelist remains intact. If anything, it heightens the dramatic immediacy. More pressure is put on the tenor, who in this case was the excellent James Gilchrist, whose down to earth singing style made the text clear and exciting. Many Evangelists, alas, give the impression that it's their voices that count because everyone knows the story. Gilchrist definitely has the voice but also the ability to bring the story alive convincingly.


Mendelssohn also made other adjustments to make the performance work. He could not locate any oboes d'amore or oboes d'caccia with clarinets. The sound is most certainly different, more “Romantic” and recognisably Mendelssohnian. But then, as a composer, he was trying to bring Bach to his present. Similarly, because he was writing for a concert performance, he could not use a full scale church organ. Since chamber organs didn't exist and the harpsichord might not be heard over the massed chorus (over 150 singers) Mendelssohn used the latest technology, conducting from the fortepiano himself, from memory! Norrington used the new technology of swivel seat, leaving the piano, wisely to Robert Levin. The OAE, of course, use instruments of the period, which gives a sound as close to what the audience in 1829 would have heard – even the chorus sat in front, as was the case throughout the nineteenth century. It is a small detail, but telling because it brings the chorus into prominence, as if in a church, for which the music was created, after all. Moreover, the dynamic becomes more vivid, and the dialogue between high and low voices more explicit. The emphasis on voice and text is close to the spiritual intensity of Schütz.


Mendelssohn was scrupulous at respecting the original where he could. His notes were handwritten in pencil on the copied score and excisions merely covered with paper. He removed nothing which could not be replaced later. He added tempi and instructions which Bach left out. He wasn't editing for its own sake, or for his own amusement, but was clearly determined to bring Bach to audiences who didn't have a rich relative to give them a score. Mendelssohn was an idealist and true “generous spirit” as the title of the series portrays him. This performance had nothing to do with historically-informed affectation per se: it was an attempt to understand Mendelssohn's reverence for Bach. Since Bach was so fundamental to Mendelssohn's own music it is a basic point of entry to understanding Mendelssohn. As Mendelssohn's “working model” of the St Matthew’s Passion , this really wasn't bad at all on its own terms– it had a distinctive, dramatic élan. Bach purists may howl at the thought of a truncated Passion, but frankly, if it wasn't for Mendelssohn in the first place would there be quite so many Bach purists today?


Anne Ozorio



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