Great Conductors: Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)
BACH: St Matthew Passion Suite No. 2 Air from Suite No.3 Concerto for Two Violins
Johann Sebastian Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 when hebecame an employee of the Town Council as Thomaskantor. The following year thefirst version of the composer's St John Passion was performed on Good Fridaybut for the revival in 1725 Bach made a number of revisions. For the ensuingyear F. N. Braun's setting of the St Mark Passion was presented, with additionsby Bach. For Good Friday 1727 the Thomaskantor directed the premi?â?¿re of his StMatthew Passion in its first version. Two years later the work was repeated butthen remained unheard until 1736 when a revised score was used. Bach's ownfinal version is based on his own hand-written autograph that he preparedimmediately after the 1736 performance.
Thepurpose of the Passion is to portray the events in the life of Jesus Christduring the Holy Week leading up to Good Friday and the Crucifixion. By theseventeenth century Passions were being written for settings in both Latin andthe local language of a given composer. In Germany Johann Walther (1496-1570)began adapting texts into the vernacular in an attempt to bring the story to awider audience.
TheSt Matthew Passion is designed on a large scale. The composer calls for twofour-part choruses, with an additional soprano ripieno choir in the openingmovement, two orchestras comprising pairs of flutes and oboes, a bassoon,strings and organ. Also included are parts for a viola da gamba, two recordersand three differing types of oboe. Then there are solo parts for soprano, alto,tenor and bass, with an Evangelist who acts as a narrator (a tenor part) andJesus (a bass). There is also an array of lesser characters that come and go inthe action. The composer then deploys his choral forces with a precise plan:the two main choirs, when used separately, represent in turn the twelvedisciples and a wider group of believers: but when these forces participate incrowd choruses they represent the throng. They also join forces as a doublechorus in the opening chorus of the Passion and in the fifteen chorales. Inorder to heighten the dramatic story Bach, and his regular supplier of textsPicander (the nom de poesie for Christan Friedrich Henrici), interpolate anumber of chorales, accompanied recitatives and fifteen arias. The choice ofwhere and when these insertions are made is one of great skill and perception,contributing to the overall spiritual quality of the work.
Afterthe opening large scale double chorus, there follows the anointing of the feet,the betrayal by Judas, the Last Supper with his disciples, the agony of Jesuson the Mount of Olives, and the capture of Jesus. The second part opens withthe Faithful and Zion, the silence of Jesus when questioned, the weeping ofPeter; the scourging of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene and the Cross, the Crucifixion,the taking down of Christ's body, and the placing of the body in the tomb.
Beforehis death in 1750 Bach's compositional style of his mature years was becomingout of date and his works soon dropped out of the performing repertoire. Thefirst revival of the St Matthew Passion took place under the composer FelixMendelssohn in 1829 with a chorus of almost 160 voices. The size of theorchestral forces used is uncertain but it was no doubt larger than thoseearlier employed by Bach, and it has been suggested that the oboi da cacciawere replaced by clarinets.
Tomark the centenary of the composer's death the Bach Gesellschaft was founded in1850 to undertake the publication of his music in accurate performing editions.Despite its valiant attempts, however, the style of interpretation over theensuing century would remain firmly based in the nineteenth century, with largechoral and orchestral forces, invariably using inaccurate and corrupted texts.No serious attempts were made to adopt a return to the concepts of aneighteenth-century performing practice until the last fifty years. Today it isunlikely that any conductor would dare to offer a performance that did notfollow the accepted Bachian principles of style.
Thefirst complete recording of the St Matthew Passion (incidentally, sung inEnglish) had been made at a concert in Boston in the spring of 1937 under SergeKoussevizky on 27 78 rpm discs. Sadly it exhibited both poor recorded sound andvery variable standards of performance. Earlier studio attempts had comprisedonly extended highlights from the score. Quite a number of the individual soloarias had been made by a variety of artists in both American and Europe inaddition to several of the chorales and chorus.
WillemMengelberg's interpretation, which he had given in Amsterdam every year since1899, upheld the old, monumental tradition of Bach performing style. It must beconceded that of its kind his reading is exceedingly impressive, even if thesentimental and almost stagnating allargandi to which the conductor is addicteddetracts from total acceptance of the performance. There is, however, an almostspiritual intensity, real poignancy and commitment by all those taking part inthis 1939 event which has rarely been captured since. It is almost as ifeveryone concerned knew that would it be the last that the conductor andsoloists, chorus and orchestra would give before the catastrophic events thatwould overtake Europe in the coming September of that same year. At the time ofthis performance Karl Erb was aged 63, Ilona Durigo 57, the remainder of thesoloists in their early-to-middle forties. Thus the soloists were indeed highlyexperienced and admired artists of their day. The two soloists in the DoubleConcerto were joint leaders of the Concertgebouw during the Mengelberg era.Louis Zimmermann (1873-1953) also recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto underthe Dutch conductor in addition to a number of shorter works with piano.Ferdinand Hellmann, who premi?â?¿red the Hindemith Violin Concerto in March 1940,also recorded the Vivaldi Concerto Op. 3 No. 8 with Zimmermann.
Thelack of the name of the solo flautist in the Second Suite is because Mengelbergaugmented the flute part using two instrumentalists in order to achieve abetter balance with the larger romantic-sized orchestra.
Therole of the Evangelist was taken by the German tenor Karl Erb (1877-1958). Anative of Ravensburg, he was originally a council employee; his voice wasdiscovered by the director of the Stuttgart Royal Opera. As a singer he waslargely self-taught and it was not until he was nearly thirty that he embarkedupon a professional career. Having made his debut in Stuttgart in 1907, Erbthen sang in L?â??beck (1908-10), Stuttgart (1910-13) and Munich (1913-25). He wasmuch admired as a Mozart singer but operatically he is best remembered for hisinterpretation of the title r?â??le of Pftitzner's Palestrina. An accident to hisback in 1930 brought his premature retirement from the stage but Erb's careercontinued on the concert platform in oratorio and Lieder. His expressive andintimate interpretation of the