Last month I made a single New Year’s resolution: to devote space in Copper to Bach’s two monumental Passion settings. These works are central masterpieces in Western art music, as important in their own way as Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies or Wagner’s Ring. Yet for one reason or another I’d never discussed them. I’m going to begin that discussion this week.
Musical settings of the Passion – the biblical story of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and crucifixion – have been a staple of Christian worship since the Middle Ages. They still form an essential component of Holy Week, often embedded in the somber rituals of Good Friday. But Passion music underwent radical changes in style and structure during the Baroque Era. As a result, today we are more likely to encounter Bach’s Passions in concert halls than in churches; moreover, in either venue we may find ourselves watching staged or semi-staged performances. Blame it on Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).
Short explanation: Monteverdi’s successful production of Orfeo in 1607 opened a door to dramatized musical presentations of classic tragedy; many more followed.
Longer, better explanation: 17th-century Italy witnessed a profound reorientation on the part of creative musicians, one outcome of which was the rise of opera. Instead of devising elaborate musical systems (e.g., rules of counterpoint and consonance) that enabled them to construct sonic paradigms of order (e.g., motets, masses, madrigals), composers henceforth committed to text-dominated ways of expressing chaos (i.e., emotion!). These late-Renaissance innovators, Monteverdi chief among them, wanted to provoke powerful, almost involuntary emotional responses, just as their ancient Greek predecessors had done.
So perhaps it is less useful to situate Bach’s Passions within their narrow – and increasingly archaic – liturgical function than to regard them as a special category of Baroque opera or oratorio. We need to get our bearings there before venturing onward. To that end, I’m recommending two new recordings that illustrate the historic transformations described above. They may work nicely as warm-up exercises for your own Bach Passion Experience, although they’re too good to be relegated to mere warm-up status. (Sometimes a tasting menu is much more satisfying than a seven-course dinner.)
Passions, from Les Cris de Paris, dir. Geoffroy Jourdain (Harmonia Mundi), offers a rich assortment of Venetian music from Giovanni Gabrieli (d. 1612) through Antonio Caldara (d. 1736) with nods to Monteverdi, Lotti, Legrenzi, and others along the way. Sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental, prima e seconda pratica, Jourdain covers a lot of ground. He’s helpfully arranged the music in three- and four-track sequences that allow for intense short-term listening. Each sequence except for the last (1–4, 5–7, 8–10, 11–13, 14–16, 17–20) includes a different setting of the Crucifixus from the Mass Credo. That lends focus to a program that might otherwise seem too diffuse; in the album booklet Jourdain confesses that universal human passions, the Passion of Christ, and his personal passion for Venetian music played overlapping roles in his choice of music.
Two works in particular show off the advantages of that overlap: Tarquinio Merula’s Hor ch’è tempo di dormire (Now that it is time to sleep), tr. 1; and Legrenzi’s Dialogo delle due Marie (Dialogue of the Two Marys), tr. 9. The former, sung with singular intensity by Michiko Takahachi, is a haunting lullaby on a two-note “rocking” bass, in which Mary sings her divine child to sleep while foreseeing every detail of his eventual torture and death. In the latter, Takahachi is joined by Adèle Carlier in poetically imagined laments and prayers that Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James and Joseph, offer at the foot of the cross. It’s heartfelt and voluptuous, spiritual and corporeal. (It may be helpful to keep the album booklet open to the translations; this is seconda pratica, so text really does matter!)
NB: The YouTube video below includes the complete album; access individual tracks by clicking on the icon in the upper-right-hand corner and scrolling to the track you want.
I began my explorations with an eye on Bach – emphatically not a Venetian composer – so I was eager to hear the music on Andreas Hammerschmidt: “Ach Jesus stirbt” (Ricercar). Hammerschmidt (c1611–1675) was one of many 17th-century Germans who brought the new Italian sensibilities north, creating a cosmopolitan Baroque style manifested not only in Bach’s music but also that of Handel and Rameau. There is no record of Hammerschmidt's actually journeying to Italy. (His older countryman Heinrich Schütz visited Venice twice, to check out Gabrieli, then Monteverdi.) Nevertheless, his church music abounds in the polychoral, madrigalian, and theatrical touches that so enlivened Venetian ceremonies and services.
“Ach Jesus stirbt” comes to us from Lionel Meunier’s A-list ensemble Vox Luminis. It’s a worthy successor to their album Kantaten, which offers church music from four Bachs: Heinrich, Johann Christoph, Johann Michael, and J. S. himself. That one’s been in heavy rotation at my house for some time; I expect the new Hammerschmidt set will keep steady company with it.
There’s so much fine music in “Ach Jesus.” Where to begin? First, open the album booklet window so you can read the song texts and translations, beginning on p. 23.
Now start with tr. 4, “Ach Gott, warum hast du mein vergessen.” In this dialogo, the despairing words of Jesus (tenor) are met by a hopeful response from Mary (soprano) and her companions. Eventually their faith prevails; an exuberant alleluia ends the piece. Track 6 offers a more extended concerto (a term which, in that era, meant voices and instruments sounding variously together), “Bis hin an des Creutzes Stamm,” scored for five vocalists, five-part choir, and five-part strings. At its very end, with the words “An dem Holze stirbt,” the music swells in a grand peroration, emphasizing the crucifixion's fulfillment of prophecy.
More straightforwardly joyous is tr. 10, “Triumph, Triumph, Victoria,” for soloists, five-part choir, and brass. The most oratorio-like number in the collection may be tr. 12, “Wer wälzet uns den Stein,” a little scena in which the two Marys (sopranos) approach Jesus’ tomb, where they encounter two angels (alto and tenor) and hear the voice of Jesus (bass) informing them that the grave has given up its intended inhabitant.
If you have Vox Luminis' Kantaten handy, you will already be familiar with J. S. Bach’s powerful early cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV4), based on a well-known Lutheran chorale. “Ach Jesus” includes Hammerschmidt’s skillful variations on that chorale for three singers, three trombones, and continuo (tr. 7). Its presence here reminds us of the central importance of these congregational songs in Lutheran worship. Another, quite different nod to venerable tradition is tr. 15, “Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ists,” a Gabrielian motet for three choirs, replete with the sort of double-echo effects associated with St. Mark’s Cathedral.
I haven’t said much about the sound of these recordings, but it’s first-rate. From the deepest organ pedal tones to the silvery contributions of Baroque strings and trumpets, there’s an unforced, elegant blend of orchestral colors, with solo singers – like Ms. Takahachi – placed appropriately forward in the mix. You wouldn’t hear these works this well in a typical church or cathedral acoustic, but here there’s just enough reverberation to reinforce the musicians’ expressivity. (I auditioned both albums via 24/96 streams from Qobuz.)