Per­form­ing Arts

Je­sus’s sac­ri­fice still has power to move us in Easter mu­sic, says Ge­of­frey Smith

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Ge­of­frey Smith ex­plains why Easter mu­sic still has the power to move

In our sec­u­lar age, it may come as a sur­prise that the most sig­nif­i­cant date in the Chris­tian cal­en­dar is not Christ­mas, but Easter. The mir­a­cle of the na­tiv­ity, of God be­com­ing Man, would seem to be Chris­tian­ity’s cen­tral mes­sage, an af­fir­ma­tion of love in­spir­ing the yule­tide ju­bi­la­tion of good­will, good feel­ings and an orgy of con­sump­tion.

Com­pared to that out­pour­ing of joy, as the light from Beth­le­hem il­lu­mi­nates the mid­win­ter gloom, Easter of­fers a much darker prospect. The in­car­na­tion of God into Man comes at the hu­man cost of suf­fer­ing and death so starkly pre­sented in the Gospels and, although lead­ing to the tri­umph of Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion and Man’s re­demp­tion, it’s still a har­row­ing jour­ney.

De­spite tak­ing place amid the bur­geon­ing of spring, the tragic events still cast their shadow, mak­ing Easter, in pop­u­lar terms, a rel­a­tively muted cel­e­bra­tion, with eggs and bun­nies lack­ing the full-on aban­don of Christ­mas rev­els.

How­ever, the very depth and in­ten­sity of the Easter story make it an in­com­pa­ra­bly rich source for artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, nowhere more so than in mu­sic. Although Christ­mas of­fers the tune­ful, sing-along ap­peal of car­ols, Easter is syn­ony­mous with some of the great­est choral mas­ter­pieces ever com­posed, wor­thy re­sponses to the im­mense emo­tions and is­sues its nar­ra­tive evokes.

In­deed, the Christ­mas sea­son reg­u­larly bor­row works orig­i­nally in­tended for Easter, so that, over time, they have be­come as­so­ci­ated with both fes­ti­vals. Most fa­mil­iarly, Han­del’s Mes­siah has be­come a Yule­tide sta­ple, although it was pre­miered in April 1742 and in­tended for Easter per­for­mance, with Christ’s pas­sion at the cen­tre of its dra­matic en­act­ment of ‘the great­est story ever told’. In­deed, drama is what makes Easter mu­sic so mag­nif­i­cent and com­pelling, what­ever one’s the­o­log­i­cal be­liefs.

This is the essence of the ap­peal of Bach’s two great mas­ter­works, the St John Pas­sion and St Matthew Pas­sion, set­ting the re­spec­tive new Tes­ta­ment ac­counts of the Easter story.

‘This is mu­sic of be­lief in God and Man, the dra­matic heart of Easter’

Both are de­rived from the an­cient prac­tice of drama­tis­ing Christ’s suf­fer­ing in plain­chant as part of the Good Fri­day ser­vice, a process that be­came in­creas­ingly more and more elab­o­rate, em­ploy­ing solo singers, cho­rus and or­ches­tra.

Bach’s Pas­sions com­bine four el­e­ments—the gospel nar­ra­tive sung by the Evan­ge­list with solo com­ments from other char­ac­ters, plus in­ter­jec­tions by the cho­rus, rep­re­sent­ing the crowd, and cre­at­ing some strik­ing coups

de théâtres. Re­flec­tion on the events of the story is pro­vided by solo arias. In ad­di­tion, a com­mu­nal point of ref­er­ence comes from well-known hymns and grand cho­ruses be­gin and end the works. First per­formed in 1724, the

St John Pas­sion is the leaner, shorter of the two. Although for­merly re­garded as in­fe­rior to the more highly wrought St

Matthew Pas­sion, the ear­lier piece has come into its own in re­cent years, be­cause of its sharply fo­cused dra­matic pace. None­the­less, the St Matthew

Pas­sion, first heard in 1727, has al­ways oc­cu­pied a spe­cial place in Bach’s oeu­vre, even to the point of be­ing called ‘his supreme achieve­ment’ and com­pared to Wag­ner’s ‘Ring’.

Mas­sive in its forces—with dou­ble or­ches­tras and cho­ruses —and some three hours in length, it com­bines poignant hu­man­ity with grandeur, the most mov­ing mu­si­cal de­tails with in­com­pa­ra­ble struc­tural mas­tery.

Its essential el­e­ment, how­ever, is the deep emo­tion that colours ev­ery phrase. This is mu­sic of be­lief in God and Man, get­ting to the dra­matic heart of the Easter story. It’s no sur­prise that, more than 20 years ago, Jonathan Miller could re­veal a new per­spec­tive in Bach’s mas­ter­work, stag­ing it as a piece of theatre, en­hanc­ing the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the char­ac­ters and mak­ing their hu­man­ity all the more vivid.

That con­junc­tion of hu­man and di­vine, death and life gives the Bach Pas­sions their force, as it car­ries the re­demp­tive prom­ise of Easter it­self. As in ev­ery year, Bach’s mas­ter­works will crown Holy Week ob­ser­vances up and down the coun­try. In Scot­land, the Dunedin Con- sort, un­der fortepi­anist Kris­tian Bezuiden­hout, will play the St

Matthew Pas­sion in Glas­gow on April 12 (0141–353 8000; www.glas­gow­con­certhalls.com), fol­lowed by per­for­mances in Perth on the 13th and Ed­in­burgh on the 14th.

In Cardiff, the Dunedin’s direc­tor, John Butt, will con­duct the Na­tional Or­ches­tra of Wales in the St John Pas­sion on April 12 (029–2087 8444; www. st­david­shall­cardiff.co.uk).

The St John Pas­sion is a par­tic­u­lar spe­cial­ity of tenor Mark Pad­more and he’ll be pre­sent­ing it with the Brit­ten Sin­fo­nia, in­ter­spersed with read­ings by Si­mon Rus­sell Beale, in Nor­wich on the 13th and Lon­don’s Bar­bican on the 14th, cul­mi­nat­ing on the 15th in Cam­bridge (www.brit­tensin­fo­nia.com; 01223 300795).

Sim­i­larly es­teemed is Stephen Layton’s St John, per­formed with Polyphony and the Or­ches­tra of the Age of En­light­en­ment at St John’s Smith Square on the 14th, with soloists in­clud­ing counter-tenor Iestyn Davies (020– 7222 1061; www.sjss.org.uk).

The Han­del Fes­ti­val’s an­nual per­for­mance of the St Matthew

Pas­sion also takes place on the 14th, at St Ge­orge’s Hanover Square, con­ducted by Lau­rence Cum­mings (01460 54660; www. lon­don-han­del-fes­ti­val.com).

Han­del’s Easter clas­sic, Mes­siah, will be pre­sented by the Royal Choral So­ci­ety at the Royal Al­bert Hall, on Good Fri­day, the 13th, in a tra­di­tion stretch­ing back to 1876 (020–7589 8212; www.roy­alal­berthall.com). Richard Cooke con­ducts and so­prano Mary Be­van leads the soloists in a per­for­mance that, like all Easter mu­sic, re­news the spirit in the ev­er­last­ing prom­ise of spring.

Although Han­del’s Mes­siah is gen­er­ally per­formed at Christ­mas, it’s ac­tu­ally in­tended for Easter

Above: Mark Pad­more is renowned for his mov­ing per­for­mances of the St John Pas­sion. Be­low: Jazz com­poser James New­ton’s St Matthew Pas­sion

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