April 8, 2007


Musica Angelica tackles Bach's 'Passion'
(Mark Swed, March 22, 2007, LA Times)

THREE hours into Bach's miraculous "St. Matthew Passion," after a buildup no amount of treachery, anguish and gore on the silver screen could possibly equal, Jesus dies on the cross. This is a musically minor moment in a work regarded by some as the greatest spiritual document in the canon of Christian art. "And he passed away" ("und verschied"), a narrator sings in matter-of-fact recitative.

Shortly after that comes a bass aria of surpassingly sweet beauty. The text speaks of bounteous love and peace and rest, a hard day's intoxicatingly soft night. For all its Christian symbolism, Bach's score here seems quasi-Buddhist. Life is suffering. Death is the end of struggle.

That was certainly the message that came through Tuesday night at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, where "St. Matthew" became a battle of the bands, Baroque style. The forces were Musica Angelica and Orchester Wiener Akademie. The former is Los Angeles' period instrument ensemble. The latter is a Baroque group from Vienna. Martin Haselb-ck directs both.

The two groups are presenting the Passion on a tour that began in Mexico City last week and is to wend its way to Europe via Savannah, Ga., and New York City. The soloists will be mostly the same, the choruses different. The orchestras take turns accompanying arias and come together for the big choruses.

Bach built the competition into the score, since the chorus is often divided antiphonally for dramatic effect. Nor is it unseemly to think of Bach as competitive. He had to compete for jobs. He asked for athletic virtuosity from his performers. He expected his listeners to be trained in mental gymnastics, what with his mind-boggling counterpoint and extraordinary harmonic and rhythmic invention. Struggle in Bach is always glory.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 8, 2007 6:00 AM
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