The music of Johann Sebastian Bach reached England after his death, and it wasn't until the last quarter of the 18th century that his music began to gain any real currency. At first it was his keyboard music which was published and performed, mostly in private circles. The 19th century saw the first public performances. George Frederic Pinto was one of the first to promote Bach's oeuvre, and it was through him that Samuel Wesley became acquainted with the German composer. He developed into a real Bach aficionado, editing his Welltempered Clavier and playing his organ music. He was also the first to perform any of Bach's vocal works: in 1806 he conducted the motet 'Jesu, meine Freude'.
It was in 1837 that parts of the St Matthew Passion were performed during the Birmingham Festival. The composer Sterndale Bennett then founded the Bach Society, which performed the complete St Matthew Passion in 1857 in an English translation. The booklet of the present recording notes several previous recordings using an English text, but gives no information about the performing history of the St Matthew Passion in Britain. It would have been interesting to know when the work was first performed with its original German text, and how widespread this practice was and is.
In a book on the Passions from 1950 the Dutch Bach scholar Hans Brandts Buys stated that outside the German-speaking world the St Matthew Passion was never performed in German, except in the Netherlands. It was only in the first years after World War II that it was performed in Dutch translation; this because of negative feelings towards the German language. But that didn't last very long. Since the 1950s Bach's Passions have been performed in German. For me, being used to hearing it in its original language it is rather strange to listen to a recording in another language. I can't really figure out why anyone would want to hear a piece of vocal music in another language than the original. It doesn't really matter whether it is an Italian opera by Handel or a sacred work by Bach. That makes it difficult for me to appreciate a recording like this.
The performance by Ex Cathedra hasn't convinced me that translating Bach's St Matthew Passion into English is worth the effort. At least not in a version that is meant to be sung to Bach's music. For this recording of a performance on Good Friday 2009 a new translation was used, made by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell. "Their aim was to use language close to that currently spoken", according to the liner-notes. The Bach scholar John Butt is very enthusiastic about the translation, something which I find incomprehensible.
The translation is quite good had it been intended to be printed in a booklet alongside the original text. Often the translators have found creative solutions to the troubles the German language of the 18th century causes. There are several passages, though, where the translators have moved too far from the original. That is for instance the case when Bach's text contains connotations which are not specified and left to the 'informed believer'. In the accompanied recitative 'Am Abend da es kühle war' (No 64) the picture of the dove just suggests a connection to the dove returning to Noah after the Flood. The translators felt the need to spell it out: "At evening homeward turned the dove. Her olive-leaf showed floods receding". In the closing chorus 'Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder' the translation says: "At your grave, O Jesu blest, may we in our sad dejection find the hope of resurrection". But the St Matthew Passion doesn't refer to the resurrection, at least not in the free poetic texts. And that is not without reason.
As I said, this English version is meant to be sung to Bach's music. And in my opinion that spells failure.
I believe that there is such a close connection between text and music that it is impossible to make a translation that fits the music in a natural way. There are many places where the prosody of the English language is at odds with Bach's music. In the recitatives of the Evangelist there are some passages where the emphasis is wrong, as in the very first: "When Jesus had finished saying THESE things" (No 2), or later: "I will keep the Passover at YOUR house".
One of the main problems is the number of notes. Often there are too many, and in the secco recitatives frequent melismas are used to solve this problem, whereas Bach hardly ever makes use of melisma. In the accompanied recitatives in the part of Jesus the surplus of notes results in a repetition of one or more words, as in No 4: "Why do you trouble the woman?" In this particular passage no less than three times do such repetitions take place, which is at odds with Bach's own practice.
Elsewhere the English text needs more notes than are available. In such cases notes are split into two or three at the same pitch. That is mostly rather unnatural and often nullifies the power of the original. An example is the chorus from No 36: "Weissage uns, Christe, wer ist's, der dich schlug?" That last syllable is split in English on the words "struck you".
There are other passages where the friction between text and music diminishes the effect Bach was aiming at. When the disciples ask Jesus who is going to betray him (No 9), they echo each other in saying: "Herr, bin ich's?" The effect of the quick repetition of "bin ich's" in the various voices is strongly reduced in the translation: "Lord, is it me?" In addition, in many accompanied recitatives the rhyme of the original is lost.
The mismatch of text and music has also a negative effect on the performance. The German text requires a sharp articulation and in order to realise a truly speechlike performance a clear differentiation, for example in dynamics, between words and syllables is needed. An English text asks for a different approach, though, as the language is more fluent, and a German-style articulation would often be ridiculous. But as Bach's music is every inch German this is another argument against a performance of the St Matthew Passion in English.
It will come as no surprise that this interpretation is lacking in dynamic differentiation. The articulation - which may be appropriate for the English text - is musically unsatisfying. The result is a general blandness and lack of drama.
This blandness is not only the effect of the mismatch between text and music. I was surprised how little expression is brought to the singing of the many arias. 'Buss und Reu' (Grief for sin; No 6), sung by Mark Chambers, is just one example: the strong emotional content is severely underexposed. His singing is also marred by the weakness of his low register, as is especially noticeable in the recitative and aria 'Ach Golgotha - Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' (Ah, Golgotha - See it: see the Saviour's outstretched arm; Nos 59-60) where his lower notes are overpowered by the strings.
The performance of the aria 'Blute nur' (Break in grief; No 8) by Natalie Clifton-Griffiths suffers from blandness and in particular a lack of dynamic differentiation. The same can be said about Grace Davidson's performance of 'Aus Liebe' (For love my Saviour now is dying; No 49). Christopher Watson has problems with the top notes in his aria 'Geduld' (Endure through lies; No 35). 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' (Come, healing Cross; No 57) is unnaturally slow, and Greg Skidmore's performance tends to be a little tearful. In the recitative and aria 'Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder - Gerne will ich mich bequemen' (The Saviour, low before his father bending - Never will I choose to leave him; Nos 22-23). James Birchall does little more than just sing the notes, without any noticeable involvement.
The recitatives are rhythmically too strict, and in general real declamation of the text is rare. I am not impressed by Jeremy Budd as the Evangelist; his voice sounds a shade husky and lacking in clarity. Eamonn Dougan is a little better in the role of Jesus, but the other roles - the interpreters are not mentioned - are not really satisfying. It is said in the booklet that the soloists are from the choir. This should create a unity between soli and tutti, but when the choir is as big as it is in this recording it doesn't really matter.
And that brings us to another issue with this performance. Even if one opts away from a performance with one voice per part, the size of the choir here is really at odds with all we know about the number of singers Bach had at his disposal. Ex Cathedra consists of 25 singers for each choir. As a result the tutti lack transparency, and even with the booklet in hand it was sometimes difficult to understand which text was sung. The chorales are sometimes sung like English hymns, without clear caesuras between the lines ('Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht' - How falsely does the world accuse; No 32). And they should be more expressive too. It is beyond me how in the chorale 'Ich will hier bei dir stehen' (I want to stand beside you; No 17) the line "in agony oppressed" can be sung with so little expression.
Lastly the orchestra. There are some famous names among the players, like the violinist Simon Standage and the gambist Richard Campbell. But the instrumental performances are no better than the vocal parts. Richard Campbell is surprisingly flat in the two arias with gamba solo. Simon Standage delivers an undifferentiated reading of the violin solo in 'Erbarme dich' (Have mercy, Lord; No 39). Catherine Martin does a little better in her solo in 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder' (Give, O give me back my Saviour; No 42).
The opening chorus is also dully uniform, with little attention to textual detail. There is a lack of dynamic shading and too much legato playing. In the recitative 'Erbarm es Gott' (Have pity, God; No 51) the chords of the strings depict the scourging of Jesus, but one would never guess this from listening to the feeble playing of the ensemble. In the following aria the strings also play figures which refer to the scourging, but the players make nothing of it. The closing chorus is rushed and is short of the emotion the text expresses.
As I wrote earlier, I am sceptical about a performance of the St Matthew Passion in English. In this review I have tried to explain why I think text and music fail to match.
Even so, if the performance had been really good I would probably have appreciated it in some way, as a kind of arrangement. Some years ago I heard a recording of Bach's St John Passion on an English text. I couldn't really compare it with the original as I didn't have the translation at hand, but at least the performance was pretty good.
Having listened to this performance twice I can find hardly anything to commend.
Johan van Veen
The English text and Bach's music are a mismatch and the performance has hardly anything going for it ... see Full Review