It took centuries before liturgical music could produce the definitive rendering of the death of Christ. We know exactly when it happened, April 15, 1729, a Good Friday, in Leipzig, at St. Thomas Church. The composer was Bach. And the work was the St. Matthew Passion.
It continues to be a standard by which every other work of religious music is measured, and any time the St. Matthew Passion is performed continues to be a special occasion, as it was Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, where the Passion brought to a conclusion the Baldwin-Wallace College Bach festival. For all its problems, the performance was quite an experience.
Centuries before, Bach composers had been writing devotional music for the important church holidays, but it was only about 60 or 70 years earlier that music had developed the lyric and dramatic range to take the narrative of the central event in the history of the Christian church.
Bach himself had tried it at least once before, in the St. John Passion. And speculation will never end about his settings of the other Gospels that apparently have been lost. But the St. Matthew Passion was almost preordained to be the big one. It is St. Matthew's reporting of those few horrible days in the Holy Land that is the most richly detailed and the most replete with human experience.
And it is those details that provide the St. Matthew Passion with its breathtaking emotional impact. Bach grabs every one of them and rises with them to his most lofty creative heights. There is the denial of Christ three times by the terrified St. Peter facing the menacing troops, and the alto aria that follows, "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" ("Have mercy, my God"), that is the expressive equivalent of anything in the operas of Mozart or Verdi or Wagner. Or there is the bass aria that follows the earthquake that came after Christ had breathed his last breath in the ninth hour of the Crucifixion, "Mache dich, mein Herze" ("Make thyself clean, my heart"), with its mood of utter spiritual exhaustion and despair.
And also, there are the work's physical dimensions. With the break, it ran four hours on Saturday night; that's more than three times the length of the 19th century's great musical behemoth, the Beethoven Ninth. And it requires a wider diversity of vocal and instrumental forces than Beethoven did (if not as many in sheer numbers).
The Baldwin-Wallace College aggregation was the minimum you could have. There were six soloists, a double chorus of a little over 100 and an orchestra of 45, in which most of the first-desk players were required to play passages of the most strenuous virtuosity.
Keeping in mind that all these performers were either students or teachers at a small college in Ohio that has built a large reputation for its annual Bach festivals over the last 50 years, it should be specified that there is no way that they could compete across the board with the most remarkable displays of talent that have been lavished on this work--like the Klemperer recording with Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, Gedda and company.
The two most important solos in the Passion were done very well Saturday night. Tenor Karl Markus was the Evangelist, the man who tells St. Matthew's story, and who is on his feet and singing for most of the four hours. The music does not require a plush sound, but the singer must have textual clarity, dramatic presence, intellectual insight and stamina. Markus had them all, and it was really quite splendid the way he handled the grueling high notes that Bach saves for the last hour.
The other outstanding performance was that of Christ. It is not quite so physically demanding, but the singer must hit you like an expressive thunderbolt when he is singing. Bass-baritone John Ostendorf came close to doing just that; he gave the role a theatrical intensity--almost operatic--that seemed quite right given the drama inherent in it.
The four soloists--soprano Arleen Auger, mezzo Arianna Busching, tenor Seth McCoy and bass Bruce Abel--were fine, though none excelled at the levels of Markus or Ostendorf.
The chorus was finely drilled. Ensemble was never in question and contrapuntal lines were impeccably clear.
The orchestra, unfortunately, was not up to the challenge. The first violinist, for instance, simply was not equal to the enormous harmonic and technical complexities of the violin solo in "Erbarme dich," which is one of the most formidable of the many works Bach wrote for the violin. And that was true of the other soloists, except for the flutists, who were excellent.
Conductor Dwight Oltman's interpretation was brisk, dry and certifiably baroque. It did not plumb profound depths. But it moved well and kept the unfolding panorama of music and drama in clear focus.