A Passion for Bach

After a six-year gap, the tenor returns to his first love, singing the Evangelist in both the St Matthew and the St John Passions with Bernard Haitink

Faith Germany Music

Bach is the irreducible indispens­able of classical music. You would be hard pressed to find a performer who would admit to disliking him; and composers don’t use him — as Benjamin Britten used Beethoven and Brahms and Strauss, for example — to define a contrary aesthetic agenda. He is, as much as a dead white male can be, universal; and also, in a sense, pure. Concert pianists who spend a lot of their time with the Romantic longings which dominate the piano repertoire, from late Mozart to Rachmaninov, have been known to cleanse themselves with an icy immersion in the Bach keyboard works first thing in the morning.

In Bach there seems something morally uplifting: he was a supremely gifted artist, never to be surpassed, who founded an unbroken tradition in musical art, yet who was, as it were, unwittingly leading a day-to-day existence of surpassing ordinariness and, yes, decency. An assiduous, if prickly, municipal servant in Leipzig, he was a devoted father, married twice, to women who bore him 20 children between them: one in the eye for the supposed artistic imperative to excess and ­irresponsibility of a Lord Byron or a Jimi Hendrix.

Bach means “stream” in German — in his own era and area of Germany there were so many of the Bach family in music that it had also came to mean musician — and Bach’s pur­ity, like that of limpid water, is an easy contrast to draw with the worldly, commercially-minded, theatrical Handel, whose name is reminiscent of German words for shop and business.

There is something to this notion. There is more in Handel of an Italian sprezzatura, ­music for pleasure; while Bach speaks more to the German taste for the earnest and the meta­physical. Handel died rich; Bach comfortable. Handel was one of music’s great plag­iarists, repeating himself and stealing from others with ruthless abandon, while Bach seems to have generated most of his musical material himself. On the other hand, George Frideric Handel was a deeply religious man; and Johann Sebastian Bach was certainly not some sort of angelic musical aesthete. Nonetheless, the latter has achieved a sort of pre-eminence in music, a saintly quality, which has made his reputation immune to the vagaries of fashion or style ever since the rediscovery of his music by the ­romantic composers more than a century and a half ago.

After a long break — six years or so — I have been spending a lot of time with Bach over the past weeks on two very contrasting projects: a St John and a St Matthew Passion. St John’s Gospel is, of the four, the most theologically-minded and mystical. Nevertheless, Bach makes of it, in his St John Passion, a work more deeply personal and thrustingly dramatic than the more monumental and later St Matthew Passion, the work which he consciously saw as part of his legacy.

In the John Passion, singing, as I do, the part of the Evangelist, the storyteller, it is very easy and, I think, proper to become involved in the act of narration and in the emotions of the narrative (though some people, misunderstanding the whole thrust of 18th-century German piety, find it vulgar). Bach takes very seriously the notion that St John was a witness to these events, a friend and disciple of Jesus Christ and the comforter of his mother. While the Matthew Passion’s narrative is just as dramatic, with as much tenderness, violence and passion, the greater number of reflective arias sung as if by present-day Christians who meditate on and participate in the drama both interrupt the narrative more and lend the whole work a more universal aspect.

One particular moment in the Matthew struck me, for the first time, as a manifest­ation of the mundanity (in the best sense) of Bach’s genius. The aria for alto and oboes da caccia with choir, “Sehet”, speaks of Christ stretching out his arms to gather in the oppressed sinners, the “verlassnen Küchlein” or abandoned chicks. What makes that homely image of Christ as a sort of mother hen so tender and moving is the extraordinary sound that the oboes make together: a clucking, farmyard noise.

My St John Passion took place in London, with the brilliant choral director and conductor Stephen Layton, and a band of old instruments — dramatic, almost theatrical, but deeply felt. Mannerism is often used as a negative term in criticising classical singing or playing, but in fact mannerism and its inflections are at the heart of what we do. What we have regained by using old instruments is a whole series of 18th-century mannerisms which had been lost; ways of articulating and phrasing which modern instruments and styles of singing, with their emphasis on line, blend and consistency of palette, had almost obliterated.

Singing the Matthew with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the legendary Bernard Haitink should, I suppose, have been very different. It was, amazingly, Haitink’s first performance of a Bach Passion. In all his years at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam — which has a long and distinguished Bach tradition — he was never asked to conduct a Bach Passion, to his regret.

A modern orchestra like the Boston brings something different to these pieces, of course. Despite the virtues of all that has been discovered and revived by the period-practice specialists, it would be a perverse, self-denying ordinance that banned modern orchestras from playing this music. These are wonderful musicians whose musicality has been formed in the shadow of Bach. He is a deep composer, literally — one whose works function on many different levels; there are aspects of the music which only modern instruments can illuminate. There is no right and wrong. And in this case we were under the benign supervision of a great conductor, one who knows when to intervene and when to stand back and let it happen. It was a great way to come back to the Matthew.

But if I ask myself why I have missed these pieces so much, why they were for 10 years such an important part of my singing year, I have to say that, typical Anglican agnostic that I am, they satisfied my religious instincts. I don’t think that’s just woolliness on my part. Bach’s music represents something very special: an end and a beginning. He is a late exemplar of the Renaissance sensibility which saw music as an embodiment and expression of the Divine order; composers who wrote after him, even composers who were truly religious or who were profoundly influenced by him, wrote music which lacked the confident expressivity of that metaphysical-cum-rel­igious framework.

Immersing ourselves in his music, which harnessed supreme tehnical skill to a coherent vision of a God-infused world, allows us an inner vision (an aural one) of that long-lost sense of order and belonging.