Saturday, June 23, 2012

J. S. Bach – Johannes-Passion BWV 245 – Nikolaus Harnoncourt

   Johann Sebastian Bach was absolute master of every musical forms already existing. At last in all these forms he has chance to deal with. And in addition to one big exception, the opera, almost every musical form known in his times was present in his output. Although he has no chance to receive a request for an opera, he put his narrative ideas into cantatas and oratorios. He used a lots of musical rhetoric means, and he did it in majority of his works. One of most comprehensive narrative works by Johann Sebastian Bach is Johannes-Passion. The Passion According to St. John and double chorus Matthäus-Passion are two survived. There were also preserved many fragments of five composed passions that gave chances for reconstructions of Lucas-Passion and Marcus-Passion
   Just as any other church work of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes-Passion is deeply religious and perfectly united with Lutheran liturgy. This was normal practice in an era of still strong religious conflicts. In first half of 18th century being part of the congregation was still the primary determinant of individual and group identity. And Bach was aware of how powerful the impact of his music is and how great responsibility rests on him. The only possible solution to this dilemma was to compose in line with Lutheran theology. Therefore, in his vision of Johannes-Passion he strictly obeyed the order of worship. No wonder Passion according to St. John has been performed frequently during a quarter-century Leipzig period. Between premiere in 1724 and last acting in 1749 the work was presented at least four times under Bach’s direction.

Harnoncourt – Bach's Johannes-Passion (republished 1984) 

   In second half of 20th century Johannes-Passion was performed by almost every choir capable to perform this work. It was also interpreted by probably every successful conductor, not even necessary focused on baroque music. It was the era of phonograph, so St. John Passion has been recorded in dozens of renditions in both traditions of romantic symphonizm and modern stylization for original baroque sound. Second option based on original instruments and tuning principles gives wide possibilities for creating modern vision of baroque sensitivity. Probably the first recording on period instruments was 1965 performance of Concentus musicus Wien, and two connected choirs: Chorus Viennensis and Wiener Sängerknaben lead by choir master Hans Gillesberger. Conductor of this rendition was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, great artist and author of seminal books about musical aesthetics. First in the series of his texts was published in 1983 groundbreaking Musik als Klangrede: Wege zu einem neuen Musikverständnis, translated in next decade to many languages. A must read for any who wants to know and understand language of musical discourse.
   The Harnoncourt’s recording of Johannes-Passion was reissued several times in the seventies and eighties, becoming progressively one of the best known renditions of this work. Almost 50 years later, it is still great piece of art and document of moderately radical attitude to Bach’s music in sixties. It shows early stage of restoring the baroque music original sound. Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Concentus musicus Wien created different intellectual attitude and listener sensitivity opposite to previous performings. Closer to natural tune with pure, non-tempered intervals, for romantic long phrasing accustomed ears it sounded rough and only after the years listeners were able to notice how soft and vibrant these phrases are. Kurt Equiluz as Evangelist and Max van Egmond as Jesus are featuring soloists, some solo voices came from chorus members, just the same way Bach did with members of Tomanerchor. Organ parties have been played by Gustav Leonhardt and Herbert Tachezi – both great Bach interpreters on their own. On viola da gamba conductor played himself. The list of phenomenal musicians is long but it’s normal. Great musicians are always main power of any performance. Bach’s music demands the best, but effect is unforgettable.

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