Sunday 20 April 2014

CPE Bach's St. John Passion

Kirill Karabits - credit Sasha Gustov
Kirill Karabits - credit Sasha Gustov
CPE Bach St John Passion: BBC Singers, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits: Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Striking rediscovery of a hitherto lost CPE Bach passion

With this year being the 300th anniversary of CPE Bach's birth, it was pleasing to be able to welcome a performance of his St John Passion of 1784 (a work only relatively recently re-discovered) at the Cadogan Hall, on 16 April 2014, as part of the Choral at Cadogan series.

The BBC Singers and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) were conducted by Kirill Karabits (chief conductor of the BSO and responsible for the re-discovery of CPE Bach's passion), and they were joined by tenor Robin Tritschler as Evangelist. The programme was completed with choral and orchestral music by Telemann and CPE Bach.

Though CPE Bach's only teacher was his father Johann Sebastian Bach, CPE Bach'es compositional style owed more to his godfather Telemann (and other composers of the galant style) and in fact CPE Bach took over Telemann's position in Hamburg as Kantor of the city's oldest school and director of music of the city's five principal churches.

Telemann's Missa super 'Christ lag in Todesbanden' TVWV 9:3 dates from early in Telemann's career (1712-21). The mass (a Lutheran mass with just a Kyrie and Gloria), is based on the chorale melody which Johann Sebastian Bach also used for one of his early cantatas. It is scored for four-part choir with just organ continuo. The Kyrie, which develops into a fugue, had a strongly austere quality, whilst the Gloria was quite busy. The text was attractively pointed by the BBC Singers, who brought a nice clarity to the performance. Things slowed down for the Qui Tollis in the Gloria and the material became plainer, with things perking up for the fugal Cum sancto spirito at the end.

CPE Bach's Symphony in B flat Wq 182 No. 2 (H 658) was one of a group written in Hamburg in 1773, and commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (the Austrian Ambassador to Berlin), who encouraged CPE Bach to give rein to his full imagination. Written for strings only, they are remarkable works. No. 2 is in three movements with the opening movement crisp and vigorous. CPE Bach's writing is restless with contrasts of dynamic and tempo, finishing with a highly abrupt ending. The slower middle movement had lovely lyrical violins answered by low basses, the result evocative of poised yet melancholy sighing. The vigorous final movement launches unexpectedly in the 'wrong' key. Kirill Karabits took the movement at quite a fast tempo but still with CPE Bach's trademark dramatic and dynamic contrasts. It was very noticeable here and in the rest of the programme that the BSO played with a minimum of vibrato and responded to Kirill Karabits direction with stylish yet historically informed playing.

The final work in the first half was CPE Bach's Morgengesang am Schopfungsfeste Wq 239 (Hi 779), a setting for chorus, soloists and orchestra of a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, with flutes joining the strings in the orchestra. Setting a text about the rising of the sun, the piece was aimed by CPE Bach at performance by educated amateurs.

The work started with a striking introduction for low strings, gradually building up leading to a text describing sunrise, perhaps influenced by Haydn's The Creation (written 15 years earlier). The vocal element was provided by two soprano soloists, Olivia Robinson and Elizabeth Poole from the BBC Singers. The long solo passage was very much a lyrical arioso with the two voices in dialogue. Perhaps the expressive string accompaniment was the main interest, through not fault of Robinson and Poole, but because CPE Bach's vocal lines were quite plain. This section finished with a lovely triple time duet, followed by a chorus of rather Mozartian cast but still with CPE Bach's restless changes of dynamic and key juxtapositions.

The second section was a more up-tempo duet for the two soprano soloists, initially the two voices in duet and then back to lyrical dialogue. The work finished with a lovely Alleluia in which chorus and soloists alternated, bringing this fascinating work to a conclusion.

CPE Bach wrote and compiled 21 passion settings including five according to the Gospel of St. John. The music for the 1784 passion survived in the collection of the Sing Akademie zu Berlin along with many other 18th century works otherwise unknown. The archive was lost at the end of the Second World War, and was only relatively recently brought to light in a library in Kiev. The Passion has been recovered thanks to investigations by the conductor Kirill Karabits, whose own edition was used for the performance.

The passion was far shorter and plainer than those of CPE Bach's father. At the time CPE Bach was composing, the long passion settings with a sermon in the middle had gone out of favour to be replaced by ones lasting under an hour. CPE Bach wrote for soloists plus choir, orchestra of strings plus two oboes, and continuo.

Though there are arias and choruses in CPE Bach's St John Passion, the concentration is on the recitative telling the passion story. Like many of CPE Bach's passions, the 1784 St John Passion is an assemblage with the recitative based on that of Telemann's 1745 St John Passion whilst the remaining music varies between completely original work, CPE Bach's arrangements of his own pre-existing music and arrangements of other composer's music.

The result, however, proved to have a surprisingly satisfying expressive coherence. There was no overture, the work started with a straight forward chorale and then it was straight into the Evangelist's narration from Robin Tritschler. Tritschler's performance was nothing less than heroic, after all the part is no shorter than the Evangelist in Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion (after all the text is essentially the same), but concentrated into under an hour. Tritschler was an expressive and mellifluous Evangelist with a lovely freedom to his upper register and he made the Telemann/CPE Bach recitative highly involving.

Tritschler was joined by two BBC Singers, Michael Bundy as Jesus and Robert Johnston as Pilate with the remaining solos (arias and recitative) taken by BBC Singers (Olivia Robinson, Christopher Bowen, Jamie Hall and Michael Gibbs).

The first aria was sung by Michael Bundy, the soloist singing Jesus, a vigorous and very direct piece which came as Jesus was taken before Caiaphas. During the Barbas episode, Bundy had a lovely accompagnato followed by a tenor solo, a very galant aria vividly sung by Christopher Bowen. A further striking accompagnato, sung by soprano Olivia Robinson, came after Pilate's Behold the Man. The final aria, at the end of the narrative, was another bass aria which was finely sung this time by Jamie Hall and was a surprisingly low key piece.

This slighly low key feel permeated the work, gone were the highly dramatic juxtapositions over tempo, key and dynamic which are becoming familiar from CPE Bach's work. Instead, the piece is simply expressive, concerned primarily with the text. Even Christ's death was given in a straightforward, direct way and followed by a chorale suffused with gentle melancholy.

The chorales started as relatively straightforward, but as the piece progressed so the chorales became more developed whilst never approaching the complexity of Johann Sebastian Bach's independent choruses in his passions. The turbae were all vividly characterised, dramatic, direct and very effective.

The performance was satisfyingly exemplary with Karabits drawing finely shaped performances from his soloists, choir and orchestra. He was very much a non-interventionist conductor and when to leave well alone and allow things to happen. The performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but I do hope that we might get to hear it on disc. In terms of style, the piece would work very well in amateur performance.

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