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New Treasure From American Bach Soloists

February 17, 2012

Jeffrey Thomas directs the American Bach Soloists and ChorusIt might not have been anyone else’s notion of a great 50th birthday present, but Jeffrey Thomas, music director of the American Bach Soloists, couldn’t have been more pleased when a board member gave it to him. Thomas pulled out his treasure at an Oakland cafe near his home the other day — a bound score of the “early” version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244b, published by the German firm Bärenreiter in 2004.

Thomas was like a sleuth hot on the case as he turned to the sublime alto aria, “Erbarme dich,” in his book. Pointing to the staves for the two separate orchestras used in most performing versions for large forces, he showed how the solo violin from the first orchestra turns up in the second orchestra here. The same anomaly appears in other places.

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“This is wild,” said Thomas, gazing down with delight at his find, “and there’s only one conclusion: There was only one violinist. It’s the most black-and-white evidence I’ve ever seen that Bach wrote for one on a part.”

And so it will be when the American Bach Soloists perform the 1727 St. Matthew Passion Feb. 24–27 in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis. Anchored by a single bass continuo, or basso seguente, this early-version Passion will aspire to a fresh sense of clarity and transparency. The orchestra will include four flutes, four oboes, 10 string instruments, and a Lautenwerk, a lute-and-harpsichord hybrid that Bach favored so much he had three of them in his house.

Deploying the voices against this united orchestra, said Thomas, should make the piece “so much more followable and palpable. I think there’s going to be a real intensity to it.” Other changes include the restoration of a simpler chorale at the end of Part I and the assignment of some arias to different singers than the later score indicates.

“This is wild,” said Thomas, gazing down with delight at his find.

Excited as Thomas is to recapture what he believes to be Bach’s original intentions, he’s no strict historical purist. Even as he’s resolving the orchestra down, Thomas is beefing up the choral ensemble by 16 additional singers for the chorale sections of the Passion. Defending this “one willful exception” to Bach’s early version, he writes in the program notes, “I can not bring myself to believe that it would have been possible to keep the congregation silent during the singing of the chorales.” This larger choir, then, becomes surrogate worshippers to “represent the most accessible, comfortable, and confident ownership of the theological messages.”

Challenging Precedent

In some ways, Thomas is flouting the historical record by not relying on the sole autograph copy of the St. Matthew Passion manuscript. But that version, as he points out, dates from the third performance of the piece, in 1736, almost 10 years after the first. And the authority of the early version, Thomas argues, is sound. Johann Christoph Altnickol, a known Bach copyist (and the composer’s son-in-law, to boot), instructed a student of his, Joseph Christoph Farlau, to make a copy of the 1727 score. That’s the source of the score Bärenreiter released in 2004, another panel of its New Bach Edition.

This early-version Passion will aspire to a fresh sense of clarity and transparency.

Two small-batch German ensemble recordings of the early Passion, according to Thomas, are out of print. “I’ve never seen this version cited,” he added. Now he’s about to pass his prized 50th birthday gift on to Bay Area audiences.

The American Bach Soloists have a long history with the piece. They last performed it in 2006 and recorded it in 1996. About 25 percent longer than Bach’s St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion is often thought to be “more drawn out and expansive,” allowed Thomas. “But the fact that it’s longer is what gives it an emphatic and imperative quality.” In the St. Matthew Passion’s high contrasts between action and meditation, Thomas finds an intrinsic spiritual drama. “You can almost see the lighting changes,” he said. “We want to make that really evident, musically.”

Thomas is fully committed to this early-version Passion. “But it’s never about trying to reproduce something that actually happened,” he explained. “We can’t reenter the past. A chord that would have been shocking 300 years ago we don’t even notice now.” Thomas took a sip of coffee, the California sunlight streaming in through the Hudson Bay Cafe window. “We’re not trying to re-create the original circumstances. The piece was probably performed with candles in a cold church.”

Whatever it sounded and felt like the first time around, the St. Matthew Passion has endured and evolved through a long and complicated history. Bach himself muddied the waters, by continuing to revise it years and even decades later. Late in life he sewed new pages into his autograph score. That, program annotator John Butt points out, attests to “the special status Bach seems to have afforded the work.”

After a period of obscurity, Felix Mendelssohn famously rediscovered the St. Matthew Passion and put it back on the map in 1829. That set the precedent for performances with mighty orchestras and choruses. “I love to hear Bach’s big works with large-scale forces,” said Thomas. “We all do. But I also can’t wait to do the St. Matthew Passion in this version.” Three centuries later, in Thomas’ big-tent approach to Bach, there’s always something new to discover.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.