Monday, 9 April 2007

Passion for the Passion

cyntillating sounds opus five

So Mummy, ‘how’s your backside?’. It’s my daughter calling, asking after Easter plans, knowing that, like clock work, the day before is spent in church listening to the St. Matthew Passion on extremely hard wooden benches: a perfect ambiance but less than ideal comfort. What Handel’s Messiah is for Anglo-Saxons, Bach’s Matthew Passion is for a great deal of Germans, and for every single Dutchman. Two rich traditions: the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Netherlands Bach Society in Naarden, have instilled in the Dutch a true passion for this particular passion. Number two on society’s 'must be there' list, it is astounding that year after year a long and complex work by Johann Sebastian Bach immediately succeeds the first catch of North Sea herring in importance in the collective national conscious. Performances are sold out years in advance, you basically have to inherit tickets to get in, or alternatively, have been recently named to a cabinet post; the Passion in the Great Church of Naarden on Good Friday is where politics and society meet in multicultural and religiously tolerant (albeit more or less), modern Holland.
Founded in 1921 and having survived a crisis of interpretation and organisation in the mid-eighties, the Netherlands Bach Society made an extremely smart and sensitive move by then hiring an as yet little known young conductor Jos van Veldhoven to breathe new life into their passion tradition. Van Veldhoven, an amicable and extremely effective communicator, in turn intelligently installed a system in which he only conducts every other year, biannually turning over the high point of his own season to guest conductors, even giving them musical carte blanche. Not only does one have to be there in these ‘guest’ years to know what musicological, interpretative or practical turn the performance will take, van Veldhoven himself has caused the occasional stir or two when he conducts, as he did most recently in 2006 when his modestly sized choir was yet again slashed back in volume. The result: a completely new sound coming from a minimal group of vocalists as well as the next round of musical controversy and attention.

Brit Richard Egarr was invited to conduct this year and, as expected, creatively stirred things up yet again. World renowned for his brilliant keyboard improvisations, and in general as being a musician with a naughty twinkle in his eye, Egarr performed the early version of the Passion which dates from 1727 (as opposed to the 1736 version most used). This self proclaimed ‘anti-control freak’ seeks to avoid routine like the plague: fresh notes as ingredients to a fresh approach; he is therefore, a perfect match for the NBV. On the one hand this meant missing out on some beloved passion elements like the boys choir in the chorales, and even the last beloved chorale of the first half. The melancholic sighs in the violin solo of Erbarme dich were lost too, a shadow of them only vaguely to be heard towards the end of the aria, a fashionable decoration that Bach clearly added only later. But there were moving surprises to be enjoyed as well: the replacement chorale at the end of the first half was in itself lovely, and the lute accompaniment to the aria Komm, süßes Kreuz (as opposed to the viola da gamba regularly used) compelled the baritone soloist to a soft and touchingly intimate interpretation.
The Netherlands Bach Society has a long tradition of scouting and engaging young talent, a musical must due to budgetary restraints. Great names like Andreas Scholl and Johannette Zomer once started their international Bach careers here in Naarden. This year’s most promising talent was tenor Andrew Tortoise, a pleasing and strong voice and one clearly supported by a dramatic and well developed musicality.

It is a bit of a circus, this passion for the Passion. On Good Friday and Easter Saturday there is an intermission lengthy enough so that lunch can be served: comfortable and yet absurd of course, parallel to the intermission’s culinary delights at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. And that is where Egarr will surprisingly next take his Matthew Passion. He will stage one on that revered operatic stage, in itself newsworthy, but this in the summer: Good Lord! A definite 'not done' for the Dutch.

Catch them if you can when The Netherlands Bach Society tours the US briefly at the end of this month with Bach’s B Minor Mass,
or when they return to Tanglewood with the same this coming July. Van Veldhoven will then himself conduct this inspired ensemble for whom routine is a very, very bad word and ever-renewed inspiration, a modus.
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