My first exposure to the complete St. Matthew Passion was in a performance conducted by Otto Klemperer. It was one of the most tedious, dreary, and boring experiences of my life – although I can’t have been much older than 10 at the time. I remember it as painfully slow, morbid, agonisingly monotonous, and seemingly interminable, and it soured my appreciation of the work for decades. A decade later, and a stentorian-voiced lecturer explaining in infinite detail the wonders (which for me remained stubbornly hidden) of this Pillar of Western Civilization only reinforced my sense of the work as overlong, over-gloomy and over-indulgent. And despite having sat through countless performances, performed in many, and reviewed dozens more both live and on record, I still find it almost impossible to listen through without that underlying sense of frustration that Bach is forcing me to while my valuable life away on something which seems so utterly unnecessary. The first time I played continuo in it was a performance conducted by Bill Llewellyn at the Leith Hill Festival. It was monumentally slow, and I recall the orchestral fixer passing me a note after the first few hours had elapsed suggesting that if I slowed things down even more, we would all be in overtime; I did, to the eternal gratitude of the musicians, whose only regret was by the time it had finished, the pubs were all closed. Afterwards Bill came up to me with tears in his eyes and thanked me for so fully entering into his approach to the work, which he had modelled on Vaughan Williams’ annual performance which, to all accounts, was even more low and long-drawn-out than Klemperer’s.
In the past decades, the slow, magisterial, deeply serious style of performance has been replaced by the lighter touch of the Baroque Brigade; those enthusiasts for archaic instruments who believe that if you use the hardware of the 18th century, your performance will automatically be better and more “authentic”. Yet my heart still drops when I have to sit through the whole shebang all over again; and while I dutifully do, I usually regret having done so.
Things changed on Thursday night, however, when it was put on at the Proms by Jonathan Cohen and his group Arcangelo. I had it on in the car in a live relay, and while I intended only to listen to a bit before turning over to the news, I found myself mesmerised and unable to switch it off until the final bars had died away. I found it tremendously invigorating, inspiring, dramatic, and totally absorbing; he treated it almost operatically, with fast, punchy pacing and moments of spine-tingling drama. We all know the story, but it seemed to be entirely new and fresh in this revelatory performance. Indeed, so much did I enjoy it that last night I decided to watch it again on television, this time with a glass of whisky to hand just in case my in-car experience had been the result of a temporarily altered personality and it turned out to be just as dreary as the rest. It wasn’t. It was even more thrilling and absorbing second time around; that is until the awful imbeciles in the BBC’s artsankuwchah department decided to put some mindless bimbo on the screen to tell us how enthusiastic she was and to share with us her kind-numbingly puerile thoughts on the performance. (If only television producers realised that all we want to do is see the performance and are generally capable of forming our own opinions without the intrusive idiocy of adolescent eye-candy.)
Two things, however, struck me about this performance of the St Matthew Passion. The first was that Bach would probably not have recognised a note of it and, secondly, while it was using old-fashioned looking musical instruments, there was nothing remotely “authentic” about it. We have no idea what the work sounded like when it was first performed (that is, if it was ever performed in its entirely in Bach’s time), but I’m pretty sure Bach would not have danced around with such elasticity to inspire his musicians as did Cohen, who sat down and jumped up from his harpsichord with all the energy of a spring-loaded jack-in-the-box. One thing’s for sure, at the first performance (presumably in the cold months of Lent) Bach would not have sweated with the profuseness of Cohen, nor would his soloists have ended up looking quite so drenched in perspiration. I doubt, too, that they would have dressed in so random and casual a way, unified only by the colour black. And I cannot imagine the raw drama and sheer edge-of-the-seat excitement Cohen brought to it in the Royal Albert Hall was what Bach would have provided his Leipzig congregation 300 years ago. No, this was very much a performance for the 21st century, pandering to our tastes for instant gratification and our inability to tolerate long periods of musical inactivity. And on those terms it was a fabulous success.
Musicians, critics, and friends whose opinion I highly value, have suggested that this was a performance which lacked “weight” and “seriousness” – qualities which Klemperer, Llewellyn and Vaughan Williams provided in abundance. One suggested it was “breathless” and another that it was on the verge of being “frantic”. I agree with all of that; but in my case I take those absences as positives rather than negatives. I think the work benefitted from being given this kind of racy, punchy, and pseudo-operatic treatment, and it certainly won me over after some 50 years of indifference.
The question remains, are any of these styles of performance “correct” or “authentic”. I have a niggling suspicion that Klemperer et al were closer to the mark than Cohen; I sense that Bach would have given it weight, ponderous substance, and deadly seriousness; but I really don’t know. Certainly, he would not have recognised the immaculate intonation of the strings or the beautifully moulded tones of the wind players that Arcangelo provided us, and neither would he have recognised the grossly over-inflated tones of the modern instruments with which Klemperer worked. Bach’s singers would have lacked the polish of Cohen’s team (and Stuart Jackson was a fabulous Evangelist) or the full-bodied rotundity of Klemperer’s (I can’t remember who they were, but when we did it at Leith Hill, the Evangelist was the wonderful Ian Partridge), but I suspect the maturity of Klemperer’s team would have been more akin to what Bach had at his disposal than the youthfulness of Cohen’s singers. Am I veering towards the sacrilegious notion that had I heard Bach in person, I would have been deeply unimpressed?
In short, we have no idea what Bach wanted, expected, or even had, and while we do know a bit about the hardware available to him, there is no point in even guessing about the sound created or the way it affected the hearers at the time. When it comes to Bach (and most other 18th century composers), an ambition to be “stylistically correct” is inevitably going to be fruitless. So why bother? Why not reinterpret the work as fits the time in which it is being heard and let it live on into the future to be reinterpreted as future generations think fit? Tradition and authenticity have no place when it comes to the St Matthew Passion.