Friday 29 March 2013

Good Friday Music: Sung Text in Context

One Big Plug from a serendipitous holy week: John Butt’s Dunedin Consort Bach St John Passion, just published, represents a significant trend in the presentation of passion music.

This recording recreates the Passion as liturgy, not concert performance. It draws together organ pieces, supplemental congregational singing, collects and responses, and even a sermon from 1720 downloadable from the publisher's website. Recordings on original instruments have a potential for their own silly fundamentalism. If anyone wants to give me a concert Steinway for Easter I won't be putting it on the fire. Great music works in all kinds of media. There is a whole voodoo of pitch and temperament that is best avoided by all except professors of the subject.

A whole liturgical approach does, however, invite anyone with a heart to feel afresh the impact of the whole text in context. I was stunned to hear the dark and stormy opening chorus (Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!) framed, astonishingly, by Buxtehude’s F Sharp Minor prelude (BuxWV 146). It works.

This approach requires small consorts and choirs on something like an eighteenth century scale. Doing this not only makes runs more nimble and passionate, but sings on various levels. Soloists’ recitative tells the tale. Arias provide relief, interpreting and inviting possible responses. Choruses play group roles and provide reaction shots. Single line chorales represent the congregations at Leipzig in the 1720’s, marking major points of transition and a frame on which to hang the whole and tie it together.

The point of listening to a Passion is to be drawn, mentally and spiritually, to the different roles in the drama, entering each to some extent. We are fleeing confused disciples, we are Peter the Impulsive,  Judas the Betrayer, Caiaphas the professional holy Joe, Pilate, the overpromoted Coward. We play all these parts at different times in different contexts. All call for Grace. Each, in the course of the drama, meet Christ's searching understanding compassion. The possibility of that meeting is also potential for healing and hope.

Why not this year? Why not me? Why not you?

1 comment:

James said...

Actually you're behind the curve on this one.

The church I used to attend in Cheltenham had as its music director a man by the name of Warwick Cole, who directs an early-music ensemble called the Corelli Chamber Orchestra. He and the vicar put heads together and on several occasions the orchestra and church choir ran evening services with Bach cantatas sung in liturgical context.

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