By JAMES R. OESTREICH
APRIL 14, 2017
How passing strange. Typically, in the lead-up to Easter, Bach’s surviving Passions, the “St. John” and “St. Matthew,” each attract a performance or two in New York. But this spring, for whatever reasons, brought five major presentations of the “St. John” and none of the “St. Matthew.” And several new recordings arrived in recent weeks, all of “St. John,” as if to drive the point home.
But what, exactly, is that point? True, the “St. Matthew Passion” — first performed in Leipzig, Germany, in 1727, three years after the “St. John” — is a bigger, more complex work, and harder to present, with its multiple choruses and orchestras. On the other hand, it would seem an easier sell, being more majestic and ideologically trouble free.
Almost inevitably these days, the “St. John” courts controversy, with its bald use of the Gospel of John’s words, harping on “the Jews” as the prime instigators of Jesus’ death. All too vividly, it depicts Jesus facing his accusers, and the Roman prefect Pilate becomes an almost sympathetic figure, parrying with “the high priests and servants,” who shout, “Crucify, crucify!” to a frenzied orchestral backdrop, blood lust almost palpable in the sneering harmonies.
Even for those of us who treasure it, the “St. John,” as Alex Ross wrote recently in The New Yorker, “remains a little frightening.” The American choral master Robert Shaw, a secular humanist who loved the “St. John” ardently and performed it throughout his career, summarized the plight of Bachians in 1995: “Many of us never will cease to be embarrassed by its occasional vehement-to-vicious racial attribution regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus. There can be no doubt that its traditional text has added to the waves of anti-Semitism for generations and centuries since its composition.”
As this suggests, and as the musicologist Michael Marissen seconded in a lecture before the vocal group Tenet and the early-instrument band the Sebastians performed the work at the German Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Chelsea on March 25, the “St. John” problem has become ever more troubling in the decades since World War II and the Holocaust. With the horrible potential latent in anti-Semitism ever more apparent, any performance or hearing of this work must be cause for sober reflection, not mere mindless pleasure.
Is the Passion’s savage depiction of the Jews simply the work of a master storyteller? It is surely that, but not simply that. Bach’s own attitude becomes clearer in his music and in the poetry of the choruses and arias with which he surrounds John’s narrative.
An early chorale, for example, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” asks of the wounded Jesus, “Who has struck you so?” The second verse answers, “Ich, ich und meine Sünden”: “I” — we all, that is Protestant, Catholic and Jew alike — “I and my sins.”
Here, as Mr. Marissen notes in his book “Bach & God” (2016), “Bach moves the focus away from the perfidy of ‘the Jews’ and onto the sins of Christian believers.” And the work as a whole moves in an epic arc from turmoil to profound fellow-feeling and consolation, from inhumanity for the sake of effect, as it were, to a humanity deeply felt and registered.
The Tenet-Sebastians production was a riveting example, easily the most compelling of the recent spate of New York performances. It was conceived over a year as something of a group effort, led by Jolle Greenleaf, the performance’s artistic director, and Jeffrey Grossman, its music director. The chorus of 12 was deployed in three quartets that moved independently around the altar space, often making close contact with the audience in this intimate setting, singing separately, or combining for full effect.
To make the essential theological point of shared guilt in that crucial chorale, “Wer hat dich so geschlagen,” four singers performed the first, questioning verse in an exquisite pianissimo. Then all three quartets joined in full-throated affirmation in the confessional “I, I and my sins.”
Aaron Sheehan sang the tenor role of the Evangelist beautifully and with just the right drama from the pulpit, and Mischa Bouvier was superb as Jesus, with a warm, full baritone. The other stellar singers included Molly Quinn and Ms. Greenleaf, sopranos, and Sumner Thompson, baritone. Mr. Grossman led the terrific orchestra of 18 from the organ.