As you probably know by now, I am a great lover of the grand choral music composed by Bach, Handel and various others. I also love chamber music, but that’s another story. This love of choral music is something I acquired (or inherited) from my father, and he in turn inherited it from his father, so perhaps it’s in my DNA. I was taken to performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ from a very early age, and have endeavoured to pass on this tradition to my own children and, especially, my grandchildren, with varying degrees of success.
And so when the opportunity arose to hear a performance of Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion in Jerusalem, I was not going to let the opportunity go by and was able, through my husband’s quick reactions and equally dedicated love of music, to be assured of a ticket in one of the first rows in the YMCA auditorium.
The Passion was performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra which was founded several years ago by the organist and harpsichordist David Shemer to play baroque music on original instruments. And so this year, 2016, over the course of five days, we were privileged to witness the first ‘Bach in Jerusalem Festival,’ to mark the composer’s birthday on 17th March, with several concerts performed both in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.
The Passion was the first concert to be given in the framework of the festival, and was a very special event. The conductor was the American Joshua Rifkin, a world-renowned expert in baroque music, but most of the performers, with the exception of Richard Resch, the excellent German tenor who sang the part of the Evangelist, were from Israel. Rifkin’s conception of the music was based on his extensive research into Bach’s original performance of the work, and somewhat different from performances of the Passion to which modern audiences have become accustomed.
It is common knowledge by now that after Bach’s death in 1750 the Passion was forgotten and not performed for almost a hundred years. It was revived by young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and performed in Berlin in 1829 after Felix had been given the score by his grandmother Bella Salomon. Bach scored the music for two choirs, two orchestras and two organs, but modern performances generally overlook those instructions, preferring to use an augmented choir and orchestra. Anyway, where are you going to find two organs?
In the performance conducted by Rifkin there was no augmented choir, just two quartets, one on either side of the stage. These comprised excellent singers, each one of them soloists in their own right, who were able to tackle the complex music and thus do double service as soloists and choir. Where the score creates a dialogue between the two choirs this dualism produced maximum effect, with each quartet playing its part in the evolving narrative. The ‘conversation’ thus created was felt, heard and seen to the utmost, and the absence of the large choral ensemble was hardly noticed at all.
In a small exhibition at the nearby Jerusalem Theatre one could see the original score, as copied by Mendelssohn from the one in Bach’s own hand, on loan from the exhibition in the town of Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace. What joy it was, a few days after the concert, to put on the headphones provided, listen to excerpts of the Passion and hear the instructive commentary about how and why Bach came to compose this immense, complex and inspiring music.
For many years there was general reluctance about performing the Passion in Israel because of the story it tells of the taking and crucifixion of Jesus, and it cannot be denied that the gospels accuse the Jews of responsibility for this. But it seems that the grandeur of the music has overcome these doubts, and even Jews like myself can leave the concert hall with a sense of having been spiritually uplifted. Such is the power of music.