A performance of Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion is always an event to be treasured. Its musical complexity and religious significance as well as the fact that it calls for a double choir, an organ and an enormous orchestra means that it is rarely performed in Israel.
So it was with eager anticipation that we attended last week’s performance of the work in Jerusalem’s Henry Crown auditorium. Every seat was taken, and the stage was packed to the rafters with all the present, past and future members of the orchestra who could be mustered. Row upon row of the members of two choirs from Estonia, the Estonian National Male Choir and the Girls’ Choir Ellerhein, stood ready behind the orchestra, the women attractively attired in long cherry-pink dresses with black wraps on top. Conductor Andres Mustonen, also from Estonia, had his work cut out to control, direct and inspire the over two hundred performers, and this he did with boundless energy and understanding.
No sooner had the first chords rung out and the choirs begun to sing than we knew that we were in for a very special performance. Rarely have I heard such a large choir (almost one hundred strong) produce a sound that was both powerful, expressive and controlled. Since the Passion is sung in German I cannot claim to have understood every word, but the overall effect was sublime.
Since the performance requires ten soloists, and there was not enough room for all of them on the stage at the same time, soloists came to the front of the stage, sang their part and then retired to a place at the back of the stage, or even backstage in some cases. When the first soloist seemed to be meandering onto the stage, wearing a light-coloured suit and holding a tablet or ipad, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback, and wondered if something had gone wrong. But this, it turned out, was the tenor who sang the role of the Evangelist, the narrator of the piece who recites the words of the Gospel in occasional recitatives (a kind of sing-song). The other soloists came and went in a more dignified way, most of the men wearing dark suits and the women in lovely dresses, as is customary on such occasions. Some voices were better than others, but the overall effect was one of reverence for the great music of Bach and the sad tale of Jesus’ crucifixion. Whether it was historically accurate or not did not seem to matter at this point, as the music was the message, and each time the choir gave voice in a chorus or chorale the effect was electric.
I have heard the Passion performed in English and have been moved to tears by the depth of emotion conveyed in the realisation by the apostle Peter that, as prophesied, he has indeed denied Christ three times. I have heard performances in Israel where the conductor, out of consideration for his Jewish audience, has omitted the fortissimo chorus ‘Crucify him!’ and the passage sung by the Jews accepting all future guilt for Jesus’ death. It is known that in mediaeval Europe mobs would be incited by performances of the Passion (not necessarily Bach’s, as re-enactments of the last days of Jesus’ life were traditionally performed at Easter-time in towns and villages all over the Continent) to rampage through Jewish quarters and attack Jewish individuals and institutions. Fortunately, this is no longer the case today.
Far be it from me to condemn those who refuse to attend performances of church music because of religious or historical reasons. All I can say is that I pity anyone who knowingly deprives him- or herself of an experience that stands at the pinnacle of human culture and art.