I have listened to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion for 30 years now. I must own a dozen recordings of it, and know at least thirty different renditions of it. The best, without a shadow of a doubt, is Claudio Abbado’s — no one does the arrest in Gethsemane with anything close to his heart-arresting drama — but this, Karl Richter’s, has a finale (track 17) whose beauty remains, to my mind, unmatched. I have just now listened to it 12 times through and, as I type this, I am listening to it the thirteenth time, tears welling in my eyes as if I were 17 again. In the last thirty years — how many times have I heard it? A thousand? More. Three thousand? Certainly not less.
As a young man, I lost my faith while listening to it: why, oh, why, I reasoned, would anyone visit this sort of death upon anyone one — himself included?
When I cry over it, is it for my youth’s faith?
In the year 1700, the God-Incarnate on Earth — Hare Krshna! Hare! Hare! — Johann S. Himself — then a mere boy of 15 — traveled on foot, hitched cart, and boat all the way from Eisenach, Upper Saxony, to Hamburg on the Sea, a journey of several weeks in those days, in order to hear him play the organ. History, says Braudel (1), is circular; the story of Divine Revelation ever repeats itself: the event is perhaps best described as a sort of cross of Young-Jesus-among-the-doctors and Jesus-meets-John. (Lord I am not worthy, etc.) Today, by going here – a journey of a split second — you can hear Buxtie’s Membra Jesu Nostri — Limbs of Our Jesus –in a wonderful performance by the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner.
For years it has been a cool thing among my friends to refer to the conductor as John Idiot Gardiner. I suppose I needed to reach my present advanced age to begin appreciating his work. I do not know by name any of the soloists in this wonderful recording: to my great surprise they turn out not to be Emma Kirkby or Paul Eswood. But you wouldn’t know it by just hearing it.
I first heard The Membra only last week while listening to a live broadcast of the Misteria Paschalia on Polish radio. I can no longer say whether La Venexiana‘s rendition was better than JEG’s: it well may have been, La Venexiana is a superb ensemble which knows how to benefit from all the work that has gone before. The big surprise of course was the program of the Misteria Paschalia: La Venexiana, Jordi Savall, Jaroussky, McCreesh, Pluhar, Accademia Byzantina, Il Giardino Armonico — all of them in Krakow, of all places! — one pressing hard on each other’s feet: it reads as the Who-Is-Who of modern early-music performance. (Christ, am I glad they were not all flying on the same plane!)
Boy, has Poland come up in the world while I have been away. You know now, I suppose, where I will be — come next Easter, don’t you?
(1) Nonsense, of course. Braudel says no such idiotic thing.