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Music for Easter

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J.S.Bach, St. John Passion,
Herreweghe II
No matter my musical excursions, for Easter I inevitably end up back with Bach. The Easter Oratorio is sometimes looked upon as a lesser work, because it’s put together from an earlier (secular – Bach only re-used from secular to sacred, not the other way around) cantata and therefore not very 'original'. (Well, neither is the Christmas concerto, which stems from more recycled material than your average Yoghurt container, and we still listen to that without complaints, right?) It is rarely performed but you can enjoy it on record with Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale (HMU). It’s a performance not likely to be bettered – and as all the best of Herreweghe’s performances do, it transcends the “period instrument” (or not) divide. Philippe Herreweghe and his group from Gent will come to the New York this Easter Sunday and perform the other great Easter-appropriate work of Bach’s, the St. John Passion.

To hear him with the musicians from the Collegium Vocale in this sublime work (which has no reason to shy from comparison with the mightier St. Matthew Passion) is a very special opportunity and it is difficult to put in words how much I am looking forward to Sunday at Alice Tully Hall. It is bound to be an event that will undoubtedly be musically gratifying – but also bring a spiritual quality with it that is extraordinary and fulfilling. It is not necessary to be of a particular creed or to believe at all: If you are open to music, the music of Bach (followed at some distance by above mentioned Bruckner) is the closest to a deep sense of – for lack of a better word – the divine that an atheist (such as I’ll openly admit to being) can come.

There is not a group or conductor around whom I’d rather ‘receive’ this work from. With Konrad Jarnot (Christus), Christoph Prégardien (Evangelist), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Jan Kobow (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass) as his soloists and his fabled group, he is bound to create similar miracles that I know so well from his many records. If there are two conductors in Bach, where I’d grab anything blindly and without sampling, Herreweghe is one of them. Karl Richter is the other – which goes to show that particular ‘style’ is not what defines greatness in this music (Richter is decidedly not a “Historical Performance” conductor), but inspiration, dedication, and quality. Or, with an eye to the choir and orchestral forces: It’s not size that matters, but what you do with it. That’s what I’ve always been told, and it seems to be true. None of his cantata discs are less than excellent; the cantata disc titled “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen…” is among the very finest I have ever heard of Bach on record. His St. Matthew Passion (either recording, but especially the second) must be among of the three, four top choices, and wherever there is mention of Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Richter, or Rilling in Bach, there will also be mention of Herreweghe.

The entire post can be read on WETA's blog at


jeffrey smith said...

You seem to vastly de-emphasize the St. Matthew--and don't forget Christ lag in Todesbanden.
And Handel had a hand in this game too--the Messiah is really an Easter oratorio, and there's also Israel in Egypt for this season. I've recently seen in the CD bins, but never heard any of it, an oratorio by Hummel entitled "Passage through the Red Sea" (actually, its German equivalent)--I think the label was CPO.

jfl said...
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hemartin said...

If you like Karl Richters music and work with the Munich Bach-Choir, check out the Karl Richter Weblog at it points to all recording and videos available and many witness accounts who worked with him (on YouTube)