Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute takes on Bach’s Matthew Passion


Alison Kozol contributed to this article.

To celebrate its fortieth anniversary, the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute is dedicating its two-week session this summer to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and as its centerpiece, artistic director Kenneth Slowik has chosen to perform the Leipzig cantor’s Passion according to St. Matthew in a controversial format. Unlike most modern performances, the Oberlin forces — mostly faculty performers with a few invited alumni instrumentalists —will perform the work in Warner Concert Hall on Friday evening, July 1, using only one singer or instrumentalist on a part.


One of only two of Bach’s Good Friday passion settings that have survived intact, the Matthew setting was probably first performed on April 11 of 1729, then again in 1727, 1736 and in the late 1740’s. For the 1736 performance, Bach demonstrated the importance of this work to his legacy by recopying the score in a remarkably beautiful calligraphic version.


Ever since the work was revived in a truncated version by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, performances of the Matthew Passion have been conceived on a monumental scale reflecting its apparently lavish scoring for two complete orchestras, choruses and continuo groups. The Oberlin BPI performance represents a more recent view of how Bach and his contemporaries performed church music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The one-on-a-part theory was most prominently articulated by American musicologist and conductor Joshua Rifkin beginning in 1981 both in scholarly articles and sonically in his 1982 recording of Bach’s B-minor Mass.


Slowik recalled his first encounters with Rifkin and his theories in a recent telephone conversation. “I got to know Joshua shortly after I had been in a number of Bach seminars with Robert Marshall, who was then teaching at the University of Chicago — he later went on to Brandeis. He and Joshua were eventually to get into quite a public discussion in the pages of High Fidelity about what Bach's “chorus” really meant. In the seminars, we were doing a lot of work looking at parts for various cantatas, and it struck me even then that, unless lots of material had been lost, you were looking at rather small instrumentations — and vocal scorings as well”.


Slowik, a cellist and viola da gambist, played in Rifkin’s first Bach Ensemble and participated in the B-minor Mass recording (which he jokingly refers to as “the B-minor Madrigal”) and became convinced of the validity of the one-on-a-part approach. “If that was not the only way to do it, it was certainly one way which could be supported by the evidence. I have done things with larger groups, in fact I recorded the St. John Passion in the late 80s with a Marshall-like set of forces, but it just seemed that BPI has always been from the very beginning more or less in the forefront of things, so why not do this. We have a wonderful cast of eight principal singers and I think it will be a rich experience for all of us playing and singing, and for the audience as well”.


Rifkin’s theory has gained acceptance over the years, but in 1981, his idea that Bach’s vocal works were designed to be performed by solo voices was greeted with contempt and controversy. His argument had three major parts: he examined the concept of “choir” in pieces dating before Bach, he focused on the factual evidence left by Bach — only single parts exist for each vocal and instrumental performer — and he dismissed the assumptions of subsequent generations of performers, who had in the meanwhile invented large amateur choral groups and for whom “choir” automatically meant many singers on the same voice part.


One of the first to encourage musicians to use smaller groups for Bach’s vocal works was the Boston music critic and essayist William Foster Apthorp (1848-1913), who realized that Bach had limited resources, and his collection of singers in Leipzig barely numbered 12-16 people every week (to be distributed between two churches). Later, in the 1930s, music critic Arnold Schering agreed with this idea, arguing that the evidence suggested that Bach’s normal cantata choir comprised only 12 singers (though Schering’s views were complicated by his theories of Ripieno vs. solo singers). In the spring of 1960, the Robert Shaw Singers embarked on a nationwide barnstorming tour with the B minor Mass using only 33 vocalists and 29 instrumentalists, a radical downsizing from the prevailing choral norm. And so the trend has continued, with support from some surprising sources. Slowick notes that “in The Poetics of Music in the 1940's, Stravinsky says something like "The Matthew Passion was conceived for 40 or 42 people’. He had done the math already. I always enjoy that pre-Rifkin connection. Of course, we always want to reinvent everything all the time, but here we have someone without high credentials in the authentic performance practice of baroque music saying essentially what it really looks like”.


In addition to the July 1 performance, Kenneth Slowik is planning recording sessions at Oberlin for a CD to be released by The Smithsonian, where he has been artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society for the last 25 years. “This is something I've wanted to do at the Smithsonian for quite a while, and many of the BPI people have had some connection with the Smithsonian at one point or another. With so many people, it’s not only a matter of raising the performing and recording fees but just getting them together and housing them over the course of preparation and recording. So the fact that all these people would be there already at Oberlin and be housed makes it easier. We’re actually going to be recording some of the Orchestra II arias in the afternoons of the week leading up to the performance, and recording will continue after the performance on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday”.


That recording will eventually be issued by the Friends of Music at The Smithsonian as part of the process of reviving the Institution’s recording activities. “We had a recordings program in the late 1970s — one of the things a lot of people know about is the Smithsonian Anthology of Classical Jazz — but we also made a number of recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and so on, and those recordings sold phenomenally well — 250,000 copies of a five-record set by direct mail. That may not seem like a lot in comparison to Prince or The Beatles, but when you compare it to other classical recordings, it's a phenomenal thing.”


All of this fits in well with the idea behind the Smithsonian’s founding. “Part of the mission of this label is to fulfill an oft-quoted codicil in James Smithson's will which he made in 1829, when he gave $500k to the United States Government ‘to found at Washington an institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’. It took until about 1846 before Congress decided what that should be. Should it be a university, should it be a library? Then they finally had the idea of a national museum. So we like to quote that because it allows for the eclecticism of so many different pursuits at the Smithsonian. Part of our mission with this Friends of Music label is that the first 500 or so of each recording goes out to all the music libraries in the United States, and many in Canada and in Europe. And also to a big list of classical music stations. So we do get much more broadcasting and we try with all our performances to have some connection to the instruments in the collection here”. That collection is extensive — over 5,000 items — and includes both a quartet of Stradivarius and Amati instruments in addition to other period instruments regularly used for performances.


Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew will be performed in Warner Concert Hall at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music on Friday evening, July 1 at 7 pm. Kenneth Slowick conducts, with sopranos Ellen Hargis and Kendra Colton, alto Jennifer Lane, countertenor Ian Howell, tenors Thomas Cooley and Derek Chester, baritones Max van Egmond and William Sharp, and bass Dashon Burton. The period orchestra includes Oberlin faculty members Michael Lynn (flute), Marilyn McDonald (violin), Catharina Meints (viola da gamba) and Webb Wiggins (harpsichord), who also comprise the core faculty of the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Published on clevelandclassical.com June 28, 2011