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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion (Mengelberg) (1939)
Great Conductors: Willem Mengelberg (1871–1951)
BACH: St Matthew Passion • Suite No 2 • Air from Suite No 3 • Concerto for Two Violins
Johann Sebastian Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 when he became an employee of the Town Council as Thomaskantor. The following year the first version of the composer’s St John Passion was performed on Good Friday but for the revival in 1725 Bach made a number of revisions. For the ensuing year FN Braun’s setting of the St Mark Passion was presented, with additions by Bach. For Good Friday 1727 the Thomaskantor directed the première of his St Matthew Passion in its first version. Two years later the work was repeated but then remained unheard until 1736 when a revised score was used. Bach’s own final version is based on his own hand-written autograph that he prepared immediately after the 1736 performance.
The purpose of the Passion is to portray the events in the life of Jesus Christ during the Holy Week leading up to Good Friday and the Crucifixion. By the seventeenth century Passions were being written for settings in both Latin and the local language of a given composer. In Germany Johann Walther (1496–1570) began adapting texts into the vernacular in an attempt to bring the story to a wider audience.
The St Matthew Passion is designed on a large scale. The composer calls for two four-part choruses, with an additional soprano ripieno choir in the opening movement, two orchestras comprising pairs of flutes and oboes, a bassoon, strings and organ. Also included are parts for a viola da gamba, two recorders and three differing types of oboe. Then there are solo parts for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, with an Evangelist who acts as a narrator (a tenor part) and Jesus (a bass). There is also an array of lesser characters that come and go in the action. The composer then deploys his choral forces with a precise plan: the two main choirs, when used separately, represent in turn the twelve disciples and a wider group of believers: but when these forces participate in crowd choruses they represent the throng. They also join forces as a double chorus in the opening chorus of the Passion and in the fifteen chorales. In order to heighten the dramatic story Bach, and his regular supplier of texts Picander (the nom de poésie for Christan Friedrich Henrici), interpolate a number of chorales, accompanied recitatives and fifteen arias. The choice of where and when these insertions are made is one of great skill and perception, contributing to the overall spiritual quality of the work.
After the opening large scale double chorus, there follows the anointing of the feet, the betrayal by Judas, the Last Supper with his disciples, the agony of Jesus on the Mount of Olives, and the capture of Jesus. The second part opens with the Faithful and Zion, the silence of Jesus when questioned, the weeping of Peter; the scourging of Jesus, Simon of Cyrene and the Cross, the Crucifixion, the taking down of Christ’s body, and the placing of the body in the tomb.
Before his death in 1750 Bach’s compositional style of his mature years was becoming out of date and his works soon dropped out of the performing repertoire. The first revival of the St Matthew Passion took place under the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 with a chorus of almost 160 voices. The size of the orchestral forces used is uncertain but it was no doubt larger than those earlier employed by Bach, and it has been suggested that the oboi da caccia were replaced by clarinets.
To mark the centenary of the composer’s death the Bach Gesellschaft was founded in 1850 to undertake the publication of his music in accurate performing editions. Despite its valiant attempts, however, the style of interpretation over the ensuing century would remain firmly based in the nineteenth century, with large choral and orchestral forces, invariably using inaccurate and corrupted texts. No serious attempts were made to adopt a return to the concepts of an eighteenth-century performing practice until the last fifty years. Today it is unlikely that any conductor would dare to offer a performance that did not follow the accepted Bachian principles of style.
The first complete recording of the St Matthew Passion (incidentally, sung in English) had been made at a concert in Boston in the spring of 1937 under Serge Koussevizky on 27 78 rpm discs. Sadly it exhibited both poor recorded sound and very variable standards of performance. Earlier studio attempts had comprised only extended highlights from the score. Quite a number of the individual solo arias had been made by a variety of artists in both American and Europe in addition to several of the chorales and chorus.
Willem Mengelberg’s interpretation, which he had given in Amsterdam every year since 1899, upheld the old, monumental tradition of Bach performing style. It must be conceded that of its kind his reading is exceedingly impressive, even if the sentimental and almost stagnating allargandi to which the conductor is addicted detracts from total acceptance of the performance. There is, however, an almost spiritual intensity, real poignancy and commitment by all those taking part in this 1939 event which has rarely been captured since. It is almost as if everyone concerned knew that would it be the last that the conductor and soloists, chorus and orchestra would give before the catastrophic events that would overtake Europe in the coming September of that same year. At the time of this performance Karl Erb was aged 63, Ilona Durigo 57, the remainder of the soloists in their early-to-middle forties. Thus the soloists were indeed highly experienced and admired artists of their day. The two soloists in the Double Concerto were joint leaders of the Concertgebouw during the Mengelberg era. Louis Zimmermann (1873–1953) also recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto under the Dutch conductor in addition to a number of shorter works with piano. Ferdinand Hellmann, who premièred the Hindemith Violin Concerto in March 1940, also recorded the Vivaldi Concerto Op 3 No 8 with Zimmermann.
The lack of the name of the solo flautist in the Second Suite is because Mengelberg augmented the flute part using two instrumentalists in order to achieve a better balance with the larger romantic-sized orchestra.
The role of the Evangelist was taken by the German tenor Karl Erb (1877–1958). A native of Ravensburg, he was originally a council employee; his voice was discovered by the director of the Stuttgart Royal Opera. As a singer he was largely self-taught and it was not until he was nearly thirty that he embarked upon a professional career. Having made his début in Stuttgart in 1907, Erb then sang in Lübeck (1908–10), Stuttgart (1910–13) and Munich (1913–25). He was much admired as a Mozart singer but operatically he is best remembered for his interpretation of the title rôle of Pftitzner’s Palestrina. An accident to his back in 1930 brought his premature retirement from the stage but Erb’s career continued on the concert platform in oratorio and Lieder. His expressive and intimate interpretation of the Evangelist was widely admired in its day, even if his vocal quality sounds somewhat nasal and limited in range. He was greatly respected as a Lieder singer as his many fine recordings of the 1930s illustrate. His last recordings were of Schubert Lieder, made when he was approaching 75. He was married for a time to the soprano Maria Ivogün.
The Dutch bass Willem Ravelli (1892–1980) sang the part of Jesus. Having made his operatic début in Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1917, the singer is best recalled as an oratorio performer. He sang the part of Christus on more than four hundred occasions. He was a member of the Hollansch Vocaal Kwartet and as such appeared in a number of European countries.
The soprano Jo Vincent (1898–1989) was one of the best known and admired Dutch singers of her time. Born in Amsterdam, she made her début in 1920 and first sang with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mengelberg five years later. Her bright and attractive voice was ideally suited to the field of oratorio and song on the concert platform where she became immensely popular. Her single operatic rôle was that of the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. She was forced into premature retirement during the German occupation of Holland but was able to resume her career in 1945 until she finally retired in 1953 in order to teach at the Haarlem Conservatory. She recorded prolifically for both EMI and Philips.
The Hungarian contralto Ilona Durigo (1881–1943) was born in Budapest. Originally she studied the piano but later turned to singing, studying first in her home city and later in Vienna. Although she made her début in 1906, she continued her studies in Berlin in 1908. Her sole stage appearance was in the title rôle of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Frankfurt in October 1912, the remainder of the career was devoted to the concert platform. Durigo sang widely throughout Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, basing herself in Zurich and becoming much admired for her interpretation of the songs of Othmar Schoeck and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. She possessed a sensuous contralto voice with a dark timbre. Between 1921 and 1937 Durigo taught at the Zurich Conservatory, where her pupils included the soprano Maria Stader. Following her marriage in 1937 she returned to Budapest to teach, until her death.
The Dutch tenor Louis van Tulder (1892–1969) was born in Amsterdam. He came from a large Roman Catholic family, being the tenth child. He sang as a treble and continued as a tenor when his voice broke. His début was in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in 1912 when the tenor who had been engaged fell ill during the performance. From 1916 he was a principal tenor at the Netherlands Opera where his rôles included the title-rôle in Gounod’s Faust, Lionel in Martha and Rodolfo in La Bohème, but left after five years for a career on the concert platform. His European engagements included regular concerts in Germany. He formed the Hollansch Vocaal Kwartet with the soprano Jo Vincent, the contralto Suze Luger-van Beuge and the bass Willem Ravelli. Van Tulder took part in Bach’s St Matthew Passion on over five hundred occasions, many of which were as the Evangelist. Retiring in 1950, he later taught and conducted various choral organizations. He died following a car accident in Hilversum. He recorded for Columbia and Philips.
The bass-baritone Hermann Schey (1895–1981) was born in Bunzlau in Silesia. His musical training was in Berlin but he was drafted into the German army in 1915. His career began in 1922 as an oratorio and concert singer and took him all over Europe, including Poland, Russia and the Balkan states, before coming to Amsterdam, where he sang Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder under Mengelberg. This resulted in Schey taking part in the annual performances of the St Matthew Passion under the Dutch conductor. Being Jewish he went into hiding during the period of the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. Resuming his career in 1946, Schey continued to sing throughout Europe before a poignant but triumphant tour of Israel in 1968. After retiring he taught singing in Switzerland until his death. His earliest recordings were for Odéon, then Polydor, Christschall and Concert Hall.
In his book The Orchestra Speaks (1938, London) the author, the viola player Bernard Shore, wrote of the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg; “His interpretations, intensely personal and vivid, have great conviction behind them. Though he may depart from the directions of the composer, audience and orchestra alike are carried away by the grip and mastery of it all”. Born in Utrecht in 1871 where he first studied, Mengelberg went to the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne to continue piano, composition and orchestral conducting. After making his conducting début in Lucerne in 1891, it was four years later that he became conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, a post he would hold for fifty years until his dismissal after the Second World War. A turning-point in his career came with his meeting with Gustav Mahler, a composer of whom Mengelberg became a much-admired interpreter. Between 1907 and 1920 he also directed the Frankfurt Museum concerts and between 1921 and 1929 he was joint conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of New York. His dismissal from the Concertgebouw in 1945 was because of his naïve co-operation with the Nazi occupiers during the years 1940–44. Banned from conducting until 1951, he died in Switzerland that year. Ever the controversial and creative interpreter, Mengelberg was often cavalier in his changes to scores, believing that the conductor must assist the creator and claiming that faithfulness to the notes was a recent invention. He thought nothing of employing rubati, making changes to dynamics and the doubling of woodwind instruments. Whatever one might think of the Dutchman’s music making, Mengelberg remains one of the finest representatives of the Romantic tradition of conductors, his interpretations extracting the full gamut of emotional power from the score.
Mengelberg’s live recording of the St Matthew Passion was originally made by the Dutch Radio Broadcasting Union using the Philips Miller sound recording system. This technology employed a black-coated celluloid film onto which the recording was etched using a sapphire chisel-type stylus and read back via an optical photocell (not unlike the method used by film soundtracks). This system allowed for longer takes and a wider frequency range than commercial 78 rpm discs of the period. (A fascinating website devoted to the technological aspects of this particular recording can be found at http://www.xs4all.nl/~rabruil/philmil.html).
To be sure, the results were not perfect. There are occasional sudden volume level changes, sputtering sounds, distortion and jarring edits, not all of which could be eliminated. At its best, however, the sound approaches the level of early 1950s tape recordings, and enables us to hear Mengelberg’s forces with an often striking presence.
The conductor chose to omit several numbers from his performance of the Passion. The largest cut begins in the middle of No 49 and jumps to No 54. In Philips’ most recent CD reissue (part of their “Duo” series), further numbers were cut in order to fit the performance onto two discs. Here, it has been presented in its entirety as originally released, filled out with Mengelberg’s complete commercial recordings of the works of JS Bach.
For this reissue, the Passion was transferred from Dutch LPs. The sources for the second orchestral Suite were the best sides from two copies of US Columbia shellac pressings (“Full-Range” and “Large” label editions). The New York recording of the Air from the Third Suite came from a US Victor “Z” pressing, while the Concertgebouw remake was taken from a French Telefunken 78. The Double Concerto was restored from an unedited open reel tape provided to me a decade ago by John Toczek, from whose collection the ultra-rare Dutch Decca discs came.
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BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion (Mengelberg) (1939...