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Matthäus-Passion BWV 244
Conducted by Roger Norrington

V-2

Bach: St. Matthew Passion complete

 

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244

Sir Roger Norrington

Netherlands Radio Choir (Netherlands Radio Koor); National Children's Choir (Nationaal Kinderkoor); National Boys Choir (Nationaal Jongenskoor) / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Tenor [Evangelist]: James Gilchrist; Bass [Christ]: Florian Boesch; Soprano: Dominique Labelle; Alto: Marie-Claude Chappuis; Tenor: Werner Güra; Bass: Geert Smits

YouTube (from Concertarchive)

Apr 1, 2007

Audio: TT: 167:34 / 168:46

Recorded at Concetgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
See: Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - conducted by Roger Norrington
Listen to this performance on YouTube: Part 1: 1/8 [9:34] | Part 1: 2/8 [9:19] | Part 1: 3/8 [9:01] | Part 1: 4/8 [8:28] | Part 1: 5/8 [8:00] | Part 1: 6/8 [7:18] | Part 1: 7/8 [10:34] | Part 1: 8:8 [9:37] | Complete [168:46]

Norrington re-creates Mendelssohn's 1829 Matthew Passion

Teri Noel Towe wrote (January 28, 2005):
With thanks to Michael F. R.:

Guardian Unlimited | Arts Friday Review | The butcher of Bach "The butcher of Bach

Why has this man taken the St Matthew Passion and thrown half of it away?
Tim Ashley meets Roger Norrington

Friday January 28, 2005
The Guardian

Roger Norrington
Norrington ... knows some listeners will get a shock. Photo: Christian Steiner

On March 11 1829, the great and the good of Prussia assembled at the Singakademie in Berlin to hear a wunderkind conduct an obscure work by a composer whose music some considered peripheral to the repertoire. The prodigy was the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, then the talk of all Germany, whose appearance was doubtless a major factor in drawing the crowds. The King of Prussia was in attendance, so were the poet Heinrich Heine, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel and the virtuoso violinist Nicolo Paganini. The demand for tickets was such that hundreds of people were turned away at the door. The unknown work, meanwhile, was Bach's St Matthew Passion. First performed in Leipzig either in 1727 or 1729, the Passion, now considered by many to be the greatest piece of music ever composed, had not been heard in public since Bach's death in 1750.

The performance, hugely successful and now the stuff of legend, is generally seen as marking the start of the so-called "Bach revival", for which Mendelssohn has often taken sole credit. Next month, Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are undertaking a reconstruction of the concert, as part of a Mendelssohn retrospective at London's South Bank, and Norrington is well aware that some listeners may be in for a shock. The edition used in 1829 was Mendelssohn's own, and departed from Bach in ways that some might now consider alarming.

"It's hugely cut," says Norrington. "There's less than half left. Huge numbers of the meditative arias and chorales have gone. The story line is there, but I suppose he thought people just couldn't handle four hours, three-and-a-half hours, or whatever it is." Mendelssohn changed the orchestration, altered the harmonies, and adjusted some of the solo lines to suit the singers he had available. "That's going to be hardest for us to take," Norrington remarks, expressing doubts as to whether Mendelssohn's Bach should be performed outside the context of a Mendelssohn festival. "That's the one time to hear it, but even so I think you've got to explain to the audience what we're doing and that it's not some sort of affectation, and neither is it the Matthew Passion that we know and love."

The Matthew Passion that we know and love might never have seen the light of day were it not for that performance, though the frequently cited belief that Mendelssohn single-handedly unearthed Bach's entire output is not true. "It's wrong when people say he wasn't heard after his death in 1750," says Norrington. "He was known quite well. All composers had the Preludes and Fugues and the Art of Fugue and the small chambery stuff. It was the big pieces, the John Passion, the Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass that weren't known." Copies of Bach's major choral works seemingly circulated in rare manuscript copies, more talked about than ever seen. "Beethoven knew about the B Minor," says Norrington. "He tried to get hold of a copy when he was studying for the Missa Solemnis, but he couldn't get one. Haydn had a copy of the B Minor, but not of the Matthew."

Among those drawn to the little that was known of Bach's output were Mendelssohn's parents. When Felix's sister Fanny, five years his senior, was born, her mother Leah Mendelssohn took one look at the girl and declared she had "Bach Fugue fingers".

Fanny later became a virtuoso pianist, making her debut in 1818 with the 24 Preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Felix, aged nine, appeared in the same concert, playing Dussek's Military Concerto and initially making altogether less of an impression. Bach's instrumental works were central to the musical education of both children. Their teacher was Carl Friedrich Zelter, music director of the Singakademie, founded in 1791 to promote and preserve the 18th-century German choral tradition: Fanny and Felix joined the choir in 1820. Bach was also high on Zelter's agenda, and he directed the Singakademie in some of the smaller sacred works. Since he considered the St Matthew Passion unperformable, it must be assumed he had access to one of those elusive copies of the score.

Just when Mendelssohn began to be fascinated by the St Matthew Passion is a matter of conjecture. What is certain, however, is that in 1823, when he was 14, he was given a hand-copied score as a Christmas present, possibly by his grandmother, Bella Salomon. "He pored over it," Norrington remarks. "He hatched this plan with his friend, and he did it." The friend in question was the actor-singer Eduard Devrient, who sang the role of Jesus in the 1829 performance. In 1827 Mendelssohn and Devrient assembled a small choir in the family's Berlin home to try out some of the Passion's choruses. Early the following year, he and Devrient barged into Zelter's office at the Singakademie and managed to convince the unwilling director to permit them to perform the piece. "It was a very undergraduate thing to do," Norrington comments. It was Devrient who did the persuading, while Mendelssohn hovered nervously at his side. They were eventually allowed to put the work into rehearsal in autumn of 1828.

"And to think," Mendelssohn later told Devrient, "it should be an actor and a Jew who gave back to the world the greatest of Christian works." His remark threw Devrient into confusion: it was one of the very few times that Mendelssohn alluded to his Jewish origins. We should remember that the 1829 performance of the Passion took place against a background of anti-semitism. "It was just there, all the time," Norrington says, sadly - but it also invariably coloured Mendelssohn's life, career and beliefs.

Felix's grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), the great Enlightenment philosopher who argued for Jewish and forcefully demanded both social and religious equality for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Napoleonic invasion of the German states in 1806, however, marked the start of the catastrophic rise of both nationalism and anti-semitism that culminated in Nazism over a century later. The Prussian government permitted Jews equal civil rights in 1812 dependent on conversion, and in 1816, when Mendelssohn was seven, his parents had their children baptised as Protestants, though they delayed their own conversion until 1822.

As far as we know, Mendelssohn's Christian faith never wavered, though he remained proud of his Jewish ancestry. Conversion brought with it the right to use the surname Bartholdy, adopted by one of his uncles. When Mendelssohn became an international celebrity, he was put under pressure to appear and publish under the name "Felix M. Bartholdy," but he refused. "Mendelssohn Bartholdy" was a matter of pride. Plain "Bartholdy" would never do.

Among his greatest achievements was the re-establishment of the oratorio as a dominant form in 19th-century music, though it is perhaps significant that Elijah, his finest work in the genre, draws together the Jewish and Christian cultural and religious influences that effectively made him. Conversion, however, shielded no one from anti-Semitism, and Mendelssohn and Fanny were subject to harassment. Wagner made loathsome attacks on his work, while the Nazis banned his music and tore down his statue in Leipzig - Bach's city - which was also effectively Mendelssohn's home from 1835 until his death, aged 38, in 1847.

Bach remained, however, arguably the most important influence on his musical development. In 1841, he revived the St Matthew Passion in Bach's church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, restoring some of the cuts he made in 1829. Bach's Passions also strongly affected his own oratorios, the most popular of which in his lifetime was Paulus. Norrington believes its influence was enormous. "The Matthew Passion made a bit of a splash," he says, "and I think a few people did it - the big choral societies like Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt. But my guess is that the piece that familiarised audiences with Bach was Mendelssohn's Paulus. It was performed 300 times in its first year, all over, from Manchester to Cologne to America. It's got chorales all the way through and people said, 'What's that?' and Mendelssohn said, 'It's Bach.'" Paulus is now rarely performed and is, perhaps, now very much a lost work in need of rediscovery as the St Matthew Passion once was.

The ramifications of the 1829 performance would soon, however, be colossal. "It is as if I heard the roaring of the sea from afar," Goethe wrote, on hearing of its success. Even though Berlin's Italian Kapellmeister Gaspare Spontini tried to block its further appearances, possibly from anti-semitic motives, Mendelssohn gave a second performance on March 29, Bach's birthday, and Zelter conducted a third a few weeks later.

Hearing the work in Mendelssohn's edition may well prove disquieting. But it also allows us to experience at first hand a moment that changed mankind's perception of the power of music for ever.

· Roger Norrington conducts Mendelssohn's edition of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on February 5. Box office: 0870 382 8000 or www.rfh.org.uk

Related articles
01.03.2003: Bad vibrations: Roger Norrington calls for an end to vibrato
14.10.2000: Classical review: LPO/Roger Norrington"
http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1399764,00.html

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (January 29, 2005):
[To Teri Noel Towe] Do you know if there are efforts underway to make a recording of the performance? If so, when and on what label?

 

Bach/Mendelssohn SMP - Norrington

Adrian Horsewood wrote (February 6, 2005):
Please excuse the long message - I hope you'll think it's worth posting to the list! I just have a lot of things in my head that it would be beneficial to me to put down in writing (typing!), and that I hope at least some of you will find interesting.

I went to a concert performance this evening (well, yesterday evening, Saturday 5th February, it now being past midnight when I write this) in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, of what was apparently the UK premiere of Mendelssohn's 1829 version of Bach's SMP (why has it taken so long to appear here?!), conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; the performers were the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Chorus of Enlightenment, and the London Symphony Chorus; the principal soloists were Joanne Lunn (soprano), Wilke te Brummelstroete (mezzo), James Gilchrist (tenor), and James Rutherford (bass).

I might just add here that I'm continually amazed by how Sir Roger Norrington looks - he's 70 (I think!), and he doesn't look (or sound, or conduct!) a day over 50. Phenomenal...

It was a fascinating evening. I couldn't get to the pre-concert talk, given by Nicholas Kenyon and Sir Roger, about the circumstances of the 1829 performance, but Sir Roger gave a brief introduction before the start of the performance. Apart from explaining the build-up to the performance and giving some insight into Mendelssohn's approach to the work, he spent most time explaining the lay-out of the performers: the two choruses were at the front of the stage, facing each other in two blocks of 6 rows of about 10 people; Sir Roger was seated behind them (looking from the audience), in front of the fortepiano; the top three soloists were at the same depth of stage as he was; the orchestras were then behind them on a podium, in two sections; and James Rutherford, when he was portraying Christ, was at the back of the stage, behind the fortepiano. This, according to Sir Roger, was roughly how the 1829 performance would have been arranged - what do others know/think?

In summary, the performance was notable mostly for what wasn't there than for what was there - as you might expect, Mendelssohn's cuts left those of us who know the full SMP well sometimes slightly bewildered! I felt most affected in this was immediately after the recitative in which Judas flings the money down at the feet of the High Priests and then goes and hangs himself - I was so fully expecting the magnificent introduction to 'Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder', with the florid violin solo, that it was a real shock to go straight back to the Evangelist's next recitative. But although the cuts were sometimes disappointing (as a baritone, I missed the bass arias, particularly 'Mache dich'), they were never detrimental to the performance - as Sir Roger said in his talk, the attention of the audience (not so much congregation any more, I suspect) was taken away from the meditative aspect of the Passion story in Bach's setting and drawn to the narrative.

But that's not to say that the performance really suffered for the excised material. The choruses, apart from an extreme tendency to rush ahead in the quicker sections (how they all finished 'Sind Blitzen, sind Donner' together, I'll never know!) and slightly weak soprano sections, were good, managing to cover the gamut of emotions and intensities in the turba scenes and chorales. The minor soloists (Petrus, Judas, Ancillae, etc.) were drawn from the Chorus of the Enlightenment - no-one really stood out, but no-one disgraced him- or herself!

The orchestra was very good - the only times it sounded awry was when the chorus had rushed ahead, which was never to do with the OAE. There was a slight problem with the mezzo-soprano being in the line of sight between the conductor and the flutes of Orchestra I, but that was only minor! There was a wonderful contribution from the clarinets/basset horns (I'm not sure as to which ones appeared where), which replaced the oboes da caccia and d'amore in two numbers - the timbre was out of this world (well, out of the sound world of Bach!). (Can someone give slightly more information as to what exactly happewith the instrumental substitutions in the Mendelssohn version? I know about the viola da gamba being replaced by a 'cello solo for its two contributions.)

The four soloists were on very good form. Best of all was James Gilchrist - I've sung in a performance of the full Bach SMP with him singing the Evangelist (which was nearly three years ago), and he just seems to get better all the time. (His recent Händel CD, on Hyperion with Carolyn Sampson and the King's Consort, is fantastic - definitely one of my top ten, or even five, CDs of last year!) Though no fault of his at all, it was very odd to hear him in the sections of the Evangelist's contribution that Mendelssohn had transposed down by an octave in order to emphasize other sections; but his singing was very gripping and a real delight. James Rutherford was a Christus with a real presence - I've heard (and seen) some basses and baritones who sing the part beautifully, but who seem to be all voice and no persona. It was a firm, authoritative performance, a good, full voice, and his non-Christus contribution, 'Am Abend da es kuehle war', was wonderful as well.

The performance of the two ladies didn't appeal to me as much as that of the two men. Wilke te Brummelstroete is a fine singer (her performance on Brüggen's full SMP, on Philips, is very good), but as a mezzo (rather than a real contralto) seemed a bit out-of-place: she sang the alto contributions in Mendelssohn's score, but her voice didn't have the depth and sonority in the lower register that I felt was needed for such items as 'Buss und Reu'; but she and Lunn were very good in 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen'. Joanne Lunn fared better, in my opinion: the last time I heard her was in December, singing Schütz among other things, and she seemed slightly ineffectual in that. She seemed more in her element in Bach/Mendelssohn, but had little to do, compared to the other three soloists: her only contribution in the first half was the upper part in 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen', all else being cut, and in the second half she had 'Erbarme dich' (yes, really, but not transposed - more anon), 'Erbarm es Gott', and the solo quartet chorus (penultimate number). As I said earlier, 'Erbarme dich' wasn't transposed, and so Lunn was almost inaudible below an E (major third above middle C), which detracted from the piece a lot; obviously, the top register was a lot freer, and Mendelssohn even obliged the soprano soloist by transposing one phrase up an octave so as to give the soprano a top A to sing, but, on the whole, 'Erbarme dich' had nothing like the usual emotion that I certainly feel (perhaps this was part of Mendelssohn's and/or Norrington's plan?), and just seemed a bit weak on the whole.

It's probably worth mentioning that the chorale in the opening chorus was sung by the soprano and mezzo soloists, along with eight sopranos (four from each chorus). I don't know what happened in 1829 - Norrington didn't say! :o)

On the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable concert, not least for the historical interest (I recently wrote an essay on Bach's posthumous reputation and reception, looking in particular at the SMP), and a good performance. I have the Spering recording of the Mendelssohn version (IIRC, it's of the 1841 Leipzig version, rather than the 1829 version), but I've yet to listen to it - I wanted to be able to go to the Norrington performance with no pre-conceptions of the Mendelssohn version, to be able to compare it to the full version that I know and love without any mental obstacle! But it'll go into my CD player tomorrow!

On a related note, does anyone know if there is a performing edition specifically for the Mendelssohn version of the SMP, similar to the editions of the Mozart arrangements of Händel's oratorios (I know the comparison isn't quite appropriate all the time, but it's interesting, none the less)? Or do performers simply make the cuts
(re-instrumentations, re-allocations, etc.) in the Bach score?

 

Review of Norrington's performance of Mendelssohn's St Matthew Passion recreation

Peter Bright wrote (February 11, 2005):
Here's a rather critical review of Roger Norrington's recreation of Mendelssohn's performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion. It's from the UK Telegraph
---------
Between Baroque and a hard place
(Filed: 09/02/2005)

Ivan Hewett reviews the OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall

"What are we about to hear – Mendelssohn or Bach? Who are we trying to be?" asked conductor Roger Norrington in his pre-performance chat, gesturing round him at the performers poised to perform Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The question highlighted the difficulty in what seemed an enticing idea – recreating the thrill of discovery experienced in Berlin in March 1829, when the young Felix Mendelssohn presented the first performance of Bach's great St Matthew Passion since its première more than a century before.

As always, Norrington had been assiduous in his research. That electrifying occasion had been carefully recreated, the two choirs at the front (both astonishingly large) facing each other, the orchestra and soloists towards the back. There were clarinets instead of oboes, a fortepiano instead of a harpsichord.

And here and there we heard Mendelssohn's discreet emendations to Bach's score. All clear enough, it seems. Except that it wasn't, because Norrington's singers and players are among the mainstays of the "early music" scene, which has taught us that large choirs, clarinets and pianos in Bach are just plain wrong.

They've also taught us how to hear phrasing and articulation in Baroque music. All of which would be out of place in a 19th-century performance, you might think – but clever Roger had an answer to that. "Performance at Mendelssohn's time was probably quite close to Baroque ways," he said in that pre-performance talk.

A cunning move, because it meant that the performers could follow their instincts – but then what became of Mendelssohn and his 19th-century instincts?

The truth is that recreation at one remove gets you into a hopeless conceptual tangle, as was proved by the concert itself. It was basically an "early music" performance – crisp, gracefully articulated, dramatic – but hampered and embarrassed by a whole set of 19th-century accretions no one really believed in.

The historical interest of the fortepiano couldn't hide the fact that in this context it was horrible. Ditto the clarinets ("You'll love these," said Norrington, with that winning ironic twinkle – well, not me). The "authentic" layout meant that the choirs were facing Norrington's back, which caused some wobbly ensemble. Worst of all, we lost reams of wonderful music, as Mendelssohn cut the piece to fit 19th-century tastes.

It was a depressing example of a great masterwork crushed by wrong-headed antiquarianism. Only in the heart-stopping drama of the trial scene did its dead hand finally lift.

Sw Anandgyan wrote (February 11, 2005):
Peter Bright wrote:
< Here's a rather critical review of Roger Norrington's recreation of Mendelssohn's performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion. It's from the UK
And here's another one from Bayan Northcott for the UK The Independent.

OAE / Norrington, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Published : 10 February 2005

Contrary to myth, the output of J S Bach was never wholly forgotten after his death in 1750. Some of the keyboard music continued to circulate in manuscript; the motets, to be sung in Leipzig, where Mozart heard one. And a belated biography in 1802 sparked new interest. But it was the first performance in a century of the St Matthew Passion, put on in Berlin in 1829 by the 20-year-old Mendelssohn, that really kick-started the great 19th-century Bach revival.

Not that anyone by then had much idea of Bach's performing style Mendelssohn arrayed a large amateur double choir in front of the orchestra, in which he substituted clarinets for the obsolete oboes d'amore, and accompanied the recitatives on the piano, while peppering the score with his own tempi and expression marks and beefing upthe earthquake recitative with full strings.

Indeed, as lovingly recreated from the surviving performance materials by Sir Roger Norrington in this opening concert of the South Bank celebration A Generous Spirit: Mendelssohn the Musician, the young composer's edition evidently inaugurated a Bach sound and tradition that was still going strong in the performances Vaughan Williams used to conduct in Dorking up to the 1950s.

Except that VW would have baulked at cutting a note. Mendelssohn, by contrast, concerned at just how much of this strange and archaic music the Berlin public would stand, cut plenty. Most of the recitatives, he kept, emphasising the narrative strand of the work; and James Gilchrist's histrionic Evangelist was one of the glories of this Queen Elizabeth Hall revival. Likewise, the main choruses were retained, but chorales and reflective arias were removed by the shoal, reducing the work's length by more than an hour.

The result was more rounded in sound and tensely dramatic in impetus than we are now used to, offering a rare contact with a distant world of early-19th-century taste - though it also suggested Mendelssohn's canny judgement in the arias he did retain. Still there, for instance, was the plangent "Erbarme dich, Mein Gott" (even if transposed up from alto to soprano), affectingly delivered by Joanne Lunn. The mezzo-soprano soloist Wilke te Brummelstroete and the Christus of James Rutherford were a little less focused.

The other roles, Peter, Pilate and so on, were taken by members of the choirs, who simply stood up when required and delivered, enhancing the collective feeling of the whole thing - to which a packed house responded with an equally collective satisfaction. The one conspicuous absence from this illuminating experience, which would surely have interested many far beyond the QEH, was any sign of the sound-engineers and microphones of BBC Radio 3 - not the first questionable instance recently of what that service chooses, or chooses not, to record.

Eric Bergerud wrote (February 11, 2005):
[To Peter Bright] I can't figure why Norrington "Can't Buy Me Love". For whatever reason he seems to be the HIP conductor that critics love to knock. Maybe it has something to do with his introduction of the Beethoven mechanical metronome debate. Contrast his reception to Gardiner's or even Hogwood's (not that Hogwood lacks enemies, but not yours truly). Maybe the problem is that Norrington has really made his mark in classical and romantic performance rather than baroque. As far as Mendelssohn goes, I have a Norrington performance of symphonies 3 and 4 that I think is terrific. (Mackerras & the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did a Midsummer Night's Dream paired with the Italian that's also great - but Mackerras does no wrong in my book.) His Beethoven 9th is one of my favorites. I can't think of a conductor better suited to doing the Mendelssohn SMP. Wish it had been recorded or that I'd been there.

Robert E. Lee once commented during the Civil War that it was a true tragedy for the armies that all of the best generals wrote for the press instead of serving in the field. I suspect most artists have thought the same concerning critics at one time or another. The classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle is deaf - I'm all for assiting the disabled, but .....

Peter Bright wrote (February 11, 2005):
[To Sw Anandgyan] Thanks for this review... As my political leanings sit better with the Independent than the Telegraph I'm happy to go with this one! ;-) -
Couldn't get much more different than the one I sent earlier...

Mike Mannix wrote (February 12, 2005):
Robert E Lee had obviously never heard a Frederick die Grosse flute concerto...

Sw Anandgyan wrote (February 13, 2005):
Peter Bright wrote: < [snip] Couldn't get much more different than the one I sent earlier... >
Never two without three! Next the interview with R.N.

St Matthew Passion

**** Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Andrew Clements
Monday February 7, 2005
The Guardian

We are about to enter the passion season, when choirs and choral societies throughout the land feel duty bound to tackle either the St John or the St Matthew Passion. The Bach passions have become so central to European musical culture that it is hard to believe that for more than 70 years after the composer's death, the St Matthew Passion went unperformed - and was even considered unperformable. It was only restored to the canon in February 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn, then aged 20, conducted two performances in Berlin.

Mendelssohn's hugely significant deed of restoration was celebrated and re-created in this performance, for which Roger Norrington conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Symphony Chorus. Norrington scrupulously followed the score that Mendelssohn prepared for his Berlin performances, with the same cuts, platform layout and orchestral substitutions.

It was a beautifully researched piece of musical archaeology, though perhaps producing fewer surprises than one might have expected. The overall impression was how like many of today's performances Mendelssohn's must have sounded: transparent and relatively intimate, with smallish bodies of strings in each orchestra positioned behind the choirs seated at the front of the stage. A fortepiano supplied the continuo, and in the only major change of tone colour, the oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia in Bach's scoring were replaced with clarinets and basset horns, producing a richly mellow backdrop to the soprano arias in part two.

Those arias belonged to a privileged few, for while the recitative was kept more or less intact, Mendelssohn dropped many of the arias and half the chorales, emphasising the element of storytelling rather than that of contemplation in the score, so that more than an hour's music was missing. Certainly, the performance moved with directness and a sense of drama, helped immeasurably by James Gilchrist's superbly involving singing as the Evangelist, and well-judged interventions from James Rutherford as Christ and Joanne Lunn and Wilke te Brummelstroete as soprano and mezzo soloists. This is not how one would want to hear the St Matthew Passion every day, or even every year - but it was undeniably fascinating.

Sw Anandgyan wrote (February 13, 2005):
An Interview With Roger Norrington

The butcher of Bach

Why has this man taken the St Matthew Passion and thrown half of it away? Tim Ashley meets Roger Norrington

Friday January 28, 2005
The Guardian

On March 11 1829, the great and the good of Prussia assembled at the Singakademie in Berlin to hear a wunderkind conduct an obscure work by a composer whose music some considered peripheral to the repertoire. The prodigy was the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, then the talk of all Germany, whose appearance was doubtless a major factor in drawing the crowds. The King of Prussia was in attendance, so were the poet Heinrich Heine, the philosopher Friedrich Hegel and the virtuoso violinist Nicolo Paganini. The demand for tickets was such that hundreds of people were turned away at the door. The unknown work, meanwhile, was Bach's St Matthew Passion. First performed in Leipzig either in 1727 or 1729, the Passion, now considered by many to be the greatest piece of music ever composed, had not been heard in public since Bach's death in 1750.

The performance, hugely successful and now the stuff of legend, is generally seen as marking the start of the so-called "Bach revival", for which Mendelssohn has often taken sole credit. Next month, Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are undertaking a reconstruction of the concert, as part of a Mendelssohn retrospective at London's South Bank, and Norrington is well aware that some listeners may be in for a shock. The edition used in 1829 was Mendelssohn's own, and departed from Bach in ways that some might now consider alarming.

"It's hugely cut," says Norrington. "There's less than half left. Huge numbersof the meditative arias and chorales have gone. The story line is there, but I suppose he thought people just couldn't handle four hours, three-and-a-half hours, or whatever it is." Mendelssohn changed the orchestration, altered the harmonies, and adjusted some of the solo lines to suit the singers he had available. "That's going to be hardest for us to take," Norrington remarks, expressing doubts as to whether Mendelssohn's Bach should be performed outside the context of a Mendelssohn festival. "That's the one time to hear it, but even so I think you've got to explain to the audience what we're doing and that it's not some sort of affectation, and neither is it the Matthew Passion that we know and love."

The Matthew Passion that we know and love might never have seen the light of day were it not for that performance, though the frequently cited belief that Mendelssohn single-handedly unearthed Bach's entire output is not true. "It's wrong when people say he wasn't heard after his death in 1750," says Norrington. "He was known quite well. All composers had the Preludes and Fugues and the Art of Fugue and the small chambery stuff. It was the big pieces, the John Passion (BWV 245), the Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) that weren't known." Copies of Bach's major choral works seemingly circulated in rare manuscript copies, more talked about than ever seen. "Beethoven knew about the B Minor," says Norrington. "He tried to get hold of a copy when he was studying for the Missa Solemnis, but he couldn't get one. Haydn had a copy of the B Minor, but not of the Matthew."

Among those drawn to the little that was known of Bach's output were Mendelssohn's parents. When Felix's sister Fanny, five years his senior, was born, her mother Leah Mendelssohn took one look at the girl and declared she had "Bach Fugue fingers".

Fanny later became a virtuoso pianist, making her debut in 1818 with the 24 Preludes from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Felix, aged nine, appeared in the same concert, playing Dussek's Military Concerto and initially making altogether less of an impression. Bach's instrumental works were central to the musical education of both children. Their teacher was Carl Friedrich Zelter, music director of the Singakademie, founded in 1791 to promote and preserve the 18th-century German choral tradition: Fanny and Felix joined the choir in 1820. Bach was also high on Zelter's agenda, and he directed the Singakademie in some of the smaller sacred works. Since he considered the St Matthew Passion unperformable, it must be assumed he had access to one of those elusive copies of the score.

Just when Mendelssohn began to be fascinated by the St Matthew Passion is a matter of conjecture. What is certain, however, is that in 1823, when he was 14, he was given a hand-copied score as a Christmas present, possibly by his grandmother, Bella Salomon. "He pored over it," Norrington remarks. "He hatched this plan with his friend, and he did it." The friend in question was the actor-singer Eduard Devrient, who sang the role of Jesus in the 1829 performance. In 1827 Mendelssohn and Devrient assembled a small choir in the family's Berlin home to try out some of the Passion's choruses. Early the following year, he and Devrient barged into Zelter's office at the Singakademie and managed to convince the unwilling director to permit them to perform the piece. "It was a very undergraduate thing to do," Norrington comments. It was Devrient who did the persuading, while Mendelssohn hovered nervously at his side. They were eventually allowed to put the work into rehearsal in autumn of 1828.

"And to think," Mendelssohn later told Devrient, "it should be an actor and a Jew who gave back to the world the greatest of Christian works." His remark threw Devrient into confusion: it was one of the very few times that Mendelssohn alluded to his Jewish origins. We should remember that the 1829 performance of the Passion took place against a background of anti-semitism. "It was just there, all the time," Norrington says, sadly - but it also invariably coloured Mendelssohn's life, career and beliefs.

Felix's grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), the great Enlightenment philosopher who argued for Jewish assimilation and forcefully demanded both social and religious equality for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Napoleonic invasion of the German states in 1806, however, marked the start of the catastrophic rise of both nationalism and anti-semitism that culminated in Nazism over a century later. The Prussian government permitted Jews equal civil rights in 1812 dependent on conversion, and in 1816, when Mendelssohn was seven, his parents had their children baptised as Protestants, though they delayed their own conversion until 1822.

As far as we know, Mendelssohn's Christian faith never wavered, though he remained proud of his Jewish ancestry. Conversion brought with it the right to use the surname Bartholdy, adopted by one of his uncles. When Mendelssohn became an international celebrity, he was put under pressure to appear and publish under the name "Felix M. Bartholdy," but he refused. "Mendelssohn Bartholdy" was a matter of pride. Plain "Bartholdy" would never do.

Among his greatest achievements was the re-establishment of the oratorio as a dominant form in 19th-century music, though it is perhaps significant that Elijah, his finest work in the genre, draws together the Jewish and Christian cultural and religious influences that effectively made him. Conversion, however, shielded no one from anti-Semitism, and Mendelssohn and Fanny were subject to harassment. Wagner made loathsome attacks on his work, while the Nazis banned his music and tore down his statue in Leipzig - Bach's city - which was also effectively Mendelssohn's home from 1835 until his death, aged 38, in 1847.

Bach remained, however, arguably the most important influence on his musical development. In 1841, he revived the St Matthew Passion in Bach's church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, restoring some of the cuts he made in 1829. Bach's Passions also strongly affected his own oratorios, the most popular of which in his lifetime was Paulus. Norrington believes its influence was enormous. "The Matthew Passion made a bit of a splash," he says, "and I think a few people did it - the big choral societies like Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt. But my guess is that the piece that familiarised audiences with Bach was Mendelssohn's Paulus. It was performed 300 times in its first year, all over, from Manchester to Cologne to America. It's got chorales all the way through and people said, 'What's that?' and Mendelssohn said, 'It's Bach.'" Paulus is now rarely performed and is, perhaps, now very much a lost work in need of rediscovery as the St Matthew Passion once was.

The ramifications of the 1829 performance would soon, however, be colossal. "It is as if I heard the roaring of the sea from afar," Goethe wrote, on hearing of its success. Even though Berlin's Italian Kapellmeister Gaspare Spontini tried to block its further appearances, possibly from anti-semitic motives, Mendelssohn gave a second performance on March 29, Bach's birthday, and Zelter conducted a third a few weeks later.

Hearing the work in Mendelssohn's edition may well prove disquieting. But it also allows us to experience at first hand a moment that changed mankind's perception of the power of music for ever.

Adrian Horsewood wrote (February 13, 2005):
Thank you to all those of you who have posted reviews of this! I was there, which makes it all the more interesting, to see what professional critics thought... :o)

One thing I noticed, both amongst the critics and my fellow concert-goers, was the expectation of almost unadulterated Bach in Mendelssohn's version of the SMP, and then actual outrage after hearing how much was missing. A lot of bile seemed to be directed at Norrington, almost for having dared to promote Mendelssohn and his butchered version at the expense of Bach. The important thingto bear in mind is that Mendelssohn's version, while obviously not being Bach's original intention, is as much a historical musical document as is the original, and should be listened to and studied as such. Yes, you may not like what Mendelssohn did - but there's no need to criticize it as if it were the performers' fault! Even if, as Norrington pointed out, Mendelssohn didn't single-handedly re-discover Bach, what he did was greatly important, and should be respected.

The other thing I want to mention was the focus on the SMP's most famous aria, 'Erbarme dich'. For what it's worth, yes it was given to the soprano soloist, but it wasn't transposed upwards at all (as several critics stated). After the soprano had finished singing, I scribbled in my program 'Bach knew what he was doing when he gave this to an alto...' - it simply lay too low for the soprano, although Mendelssohn did help out by transposing one phrase up an octavve to give the soloist a top A... :o)

Peter Bright wrote (February 14, 2005):
[To Sw Anandgyan] Thanks to all who have commented on this. What a pity this wasn't recorded so that we could all share our opinions... For my money, Norrington is an important conductor - I was lucky enough to catch him directing Bach's Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) on the 250th anniversary of Bach's death (apparently to the hour!) - at the Royal Albert Hall. It was focused, energetic and very involving... I also greatly enjoy his version of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, among others...

Johan van Veen wrote (February 22, 2005):
Peter Bright wrote:
< Here's a rather critical review of Roger Norrington's recreation of Mendelssohn's performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion. It's from the UK Telegraph
---------
Between Baroque and a hard place
(Filed: 09/02/2005)
Ivan Hewett reviews the OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall
And here and there we heard Mendelssohn's discreet emendations to Bach's score. All clear enough, it seems. Except that it wasn't, because Norrington's singers and players are among the mainstays of the "early music" scene, which has taught us that large choirs, clarinets and pianos in Bach are just plain wrong.
They've also taught us how to hear phrasing and articulation in Baroque music. All of which would be out of place in a 19th-century performance, you might think – but clever Roger had an answer to that. "Performance at Mendelssohn's time was probably quite close to Baroque ways," he said in that pre-performance talk.
A cunning move, because it meant that the performers could follow their instincts – but then what became of Mendelssohn and his 19th-century instincts? >
The reviewer doesn't seem to feel any need to prove Norrington is wrong in his assumption that the performance practice of Mendelssohn's days was not that much different from that of Bach's time. It seems what he wants to hear is what he thinks is the style of performance of the early 19th century, which is perhaps more in line with the traditional view than based on any historical research.

Eric Bergerud wrote (February 22, 2005):
[To Johan van Veen] Obviously I can't pontificate on Norrington unless it comes out on CD. For what it's worth Sperring's performance of the 1841 Mendelssohn SMP strikes me as being much closer to HIP baroque equivalents employing full choirs than Klemperer style 20th Century big orchestra versions. I doubt Sperring would quibble with Norrington's assumption.

 

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244: Details
Recordings: 1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | BWV 244a | BWV 244b
Systemetic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-8 | Part 2: Mvts. 9-20 | Part 3: Mvts. 21-29 | Part 4: Mvts. 30-40 | Part 5: Mvts. 41-50 | Part 6: Mvts. 51-57 | Part 7: Mvts. 58-63b | Part 8: Mvts. 63c-68 | Part 9: Role of the Evangelist
Individual Recordings:
BWV 244 - L. Bernstein | BWV 244 - G.C. Biller | BWV 244 - F. Brüggen | BWV 244 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - R. Chailly | BWV 244 - S. Cleobury | BWV 244 - J. Daus | BWV 244 - D. Fasolis | BWV 244 - W. Furtwängler | BWV 244 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 244 - W. Gönnenwein | BWV 244 - P. Goodwin | BWV 244 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 244 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 244 - R. Jacques | BWV 244 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 244 - O. Klemperer | BWV 244 - T. Koopman | BWV 244 - S. Koussevitzky | BWV 244 - S. Kuijken | BWV 244 - F. Lehmann | BWV 244 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 244 - E.&R. Mauersberger | BWV 244 - H. Max | BWV 244 - P. McCreesh | BWV 244 - W. Mengelberg | BWV 244 - K. Münchinger | BWV 244 - R. Norrington | BWV 244 - G. Oberfrank | BWV 244 - S. Ozawa | BWV 244 - A. Parrott | BWV 244 - G. Ramin | BWV 244 - S. Rattlr | BWV 244 - K. Richter | BWV 244 - H. Rilling | BWV 244 - H.J. Rotzsch | BWV 244 - H. Scherchen | BWV 244 - G. Solti | BWV 244 - C. Spering | BWV 244 - M. Suzuki | BWV 244 - J.v. Veldhoven | BWV 244 - B. Walter | BWV 244 - F. Werner | BWV 244 - M. Wöldike
Articles:
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [T.N. Towe] | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) [U. Golomb] | St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt [D. Satz] | The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [J. Rifkin] | The Relationship between BWV 244a (Trauermusik) and BWV 244b (SMP Frühfassung) [T. Braatz] | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - Early History (A Selective, Annotated Bibliography) [W. Hoffman] | Spiritual Sources of Bach's St. Matthew Passion [W. Hoffman] | Bach and the "Great Passion" [D.G. Lebut Jr.] | The Genesis of Bach's `Great Passion': 1724-29 [W. Hoffman] | Early Performances of Bach's SMP [T. Braatz]

Roger Norrington: Short Biography | Recordings of Vocal Works | General Discussions | BWV 244 - R. Norrington

Recordings & Discussions of Other Vocal Works: Main Page | Motets BWV 225-231 | Mass in B minor BWV 232 | Missae Breves & Sanctus BWV 233-242 | Magnificat BWV 243 | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 | Johannes-Passion BWV 245 | Lukas-Passion BWV 246 | Markus-Passion BWV 247 | Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 | Oster-Oratorium BWV 249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Geistliche Lieder BWV 439-507 | AMN BWV 508-523 | Quodlibet BWV 524 | Aria BWV 1127

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Last update: ýFebruary 28, 2013 ý10:25:27