The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: UW Choral Union and soloists succeed impressively in Bach’s massive “St. Matthew Passion.” Plus, a FREE concert of Leonard Bernstein songs is at noon on Friday | April 25, 2018

ALERT: This Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features two husband-and-wife teams. Singers bass-baritone Paul Rowe and soprano Cheryl Bensman-Rowe and pianists Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer will perform an all-Leonard Bernstein program in honor of his centennial. The program includes selections from Arias and Barcarolles,” “Mass,” “Peter Pan,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and “Songfest.” The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photographs.

By John W. Barker

It comes a bit late for this year’s Holy Week, but the UW Choral Union’s impressive mounting of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last Sunday was still a major contribution to our music this spring.

Running at almost three hours, this is Bach’s longest single work, and is regarded by now as one of the musical monuments of Western Civilization. But its length and its demands make it something performed only on special occasions.

No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor, who directs choral activities at the UW-Madison, tried to follow carefully Bach’s elaborate specifications, which call for both a double chorus and a double orchestra, along with soloists.

A traditionally ample agency, the Choral Union this time fielded a total of 100 singers, plus a 12-member children’s choir, as against a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.

This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras, and quite drowned out the children’s group in their appearance at the beginning and ending of Part I.

Still, there is no denying the magnificence of such a large choral force. It was just a bit challenged by the turbae or crowd passages. Nevertheless, to hear such a powerful choir sing so many of the intermittent chorales in Bach’s harmonizations is to feel the glory of the entire Lutheran legacy in religious expression.

A total of 16 soloists were employed, in functions of varying consequence.

At the head of the list stand two. Tenor Wesley Dunnagan (below left) has a voice of more Italian than German character, to my taste. But he not only carried off the heavy duties of the narrating Evangelist, he also sang the tenor arias as well, with unfailing eloquence.  And faculty baritone Paul Rowe (below right) was truly authoritative as Jesus in the parts reserved for the Savior.

The arias were otherwise addressed by a double cast of singers, two each on the other voice parts. Of the two sopranos, Sara Guttenberg (if I have the identity correctly from the confusing program) was strong and splendidly artistic.

Talia Engstrom was more a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto, and not an equally powerful singer, but I did like her very engaging singing. (You can hear the lovely contralto and violin aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The sharing of the alto arias with a countertenor was, however, not a good idea. Of the two bass-baritones, Matthew Chastain (if I have his identity aright) sang with strong and rich tone.  The other singers, mostly singing the character parts in the Gospel text, were generally students, ranging widely in maturity and appeal.

Taken as a whole, though, this performance was an admirable achievement for Beverly Taylor (below). Her tempos were on the moderate side, accommodating especially the large chorus. Above all, her enterprise was obvious in tackling this massive work, while the choral singers obviously found a special thrill in participating in it.

Compliments should be given the program, which contained the full German text interlarded with the English translation. With full house lighting, this wisely allowed the audience to follow along closely.

But the performance was divided into two sittings, one for Part I at 4 p.m., the second for Part II at 7:30 p.m., with a break in between of over two hours — really too long, I found.

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  1. 1) From John Harbison, Conductor:

    “The gigantic opening chorus… For the big choruses which frame the Two Parts of the piece….”

    Source: “Program Notes, J.S. Bach: St. Matthew’s Passion”,

    2) from Robert Greenberg, Bach and the High Baroque:

    “Bach expanded the form of the work and the performing forces, using two choirs (each with its own orchestra), a boy choir, and continuo.”

    3) From Rex Levang, “The St. Matthew’s Passion,” Minnesota Public Radio (this is an excellent and long discussion with all the parts):

    “When J. S. Bach came to write his St. Matthew Passion in the 1720s, the passion, as a musical form, had grown to allow orchestra, choirs, and non-scriptural choruses and arias. But even by the standard of the Baroque passion, the Passion According to St. Matthew is exceptional for its musical richness and its grand scope.

    Musically, the score is of imposing length, and calls for double orchestra and double choir—three choirs, at one point.”

    Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 2:28 am

  2. I appear to have left out some singers on the Klemperer EMI “Recording of the Century” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion which won a Grammy Award in 1963.

    Here was the full cast:

    Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – baritone
    Otakar Kraus – baritone
    Sir Geraint Evans – baritone
    Helen Watts – alto
    Wilfred Brown – tenor
    John Carol Case – baritone
    Walter Berry – bass
    Nicolai Gedda – tenor
    Christa Ludwig – alto
    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – soprano
    Peter Pears – tenor

    Hampstead Parish Church Boys’ Choir

    Philharmonia Chorus
    Chorus Master – Wilhelm Pitz

    Philharmonia Orchestra
    conducted by Otto Klemperer

    NOTE: The Hampstead Boys’ Choir had 20 voices. I was not able to determine how large the Philharmonia Chorus was at this time but it was sizable. These are not insignificant forces!


    Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 1:33 am

  3. On the point of the use of “authentic” instruments, the Rosalyn Tureck once wrote: “The very productions in much of Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre demonstrate that he did not share our desire for exact replications or a single mono-system of ‘ur’ versions.”

    Tureck was a real Bach scholar and published a 3 volume study of the composer. She was also a noted concert giver in high demand who won awards for her harpsichord and piano playing.

    Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 12:58 am

  4. You know I’m a Bach and Telemann scholar, right?

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 25, 2018 @ 9:44 pm

    • So what? I’ve never read anything you have written and I doubt few other people have either.

      Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 12:10 am

      • Ton Koopman is one of the world’s leading authorities on Bach, and of course is an acknowledged Bach performer as well (which I take it you are not). So are/were Otto Klemperer, Sir Simon Rattle, Rosalyn Tureck and others. The fact that so many leading authorities on Bach seem to disagree with you should tell you something!

        Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 1:52 am

  5. As an aside, the NPR program had Rifkin and Marissen, who would have said, had they been able to (or got edited out? I’ll ask them) that Bach’s performances were one to a part and the choir and the soloists were the same. But the other participants in the discussion had another agenda and that was what got left in the program.

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 25, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

    • I guess the “other agenda” means the people disagreed with your version?

      Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 12:24 am

    • “….And the choir and the soloists were the same.”
      Sorry, That is patently ridiculous. No serious Bach scholar takes that approach. And it violates common sense. Why would Bach have 2 choirs and 2 orchestras in two places in the church where this was performed if his forces were so small? Where would the sense of grandeur that he was obviously trying to achieve come from? If you have ever heard a concert in Leipzig, and I have, you’d quickly realize how foolish this position is. It’s a big church and even the well-trained Thomanerchor have trouble filling it. Plus, the soloists as a choir would be completely overwhelmed by the organ and orchestra. This notion is laughable.

      Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 6:36 am

      • The Thomanerchor, which Bach trained in his day, numbers around 40 voices.

        Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 6:38 am

      • Think whatever you want! I’m done.

        Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 26, 2018 @ 10:26 am

  6. Attempt no. 2, as Safari just crashed and erased everything I’d written. Bach wrote for two ensembles of four voices. Writing for multiple choirs (four voices is a choir) had a tradition going back to Venetian music of the late 16th c. In neither case does it mean there is more than one singer per part. Each singer is holding a physical part. The parts are in a wrapper that lists the number of parts. Ripieno parts look different and are labeled “ripieno”. I recommend you look at Andrew Parrott’s book on Bach’s choir and Joshua Rifkin’s work. They are right, and this is in fact “normal” for the time. It doesn’t matter how many people you think the choir lofts can hold, and the churches have been remodeled over time (the Nikolaikirche didn’t have pink and green as its color scheme, with palm trees, in Bach’s time). Boys’ voices changed later in Bach’s time, and the singers were all male, for that matter (and the school was all male). Bach’s students provided singers for four churches, instrumentalists, and some were only capable of simple music (he says so himself, and describes his needs in his Entwurff sent to the Leipzig Town Council. This was standard scoring. I’m not implying that performances with big choirs and modern instruments are “bad,” just that they are not what (clearly) was done in Bach’s time. I also found the use of “antiquarian” to be odd (rather imparting something negative about those of us who perform early music with period instruments). Does that make it clearer?

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 25, 2018 @ 9:37 pm

    • So why do you think Bach wrote for 2 separate choir lofts? Why do you think great musicians who have far more experience with Bach than you do (like Sir Simon Rattle, Otto Klemperer and Ton Koopman) have done it differently than you describe?

      Here’s another great conductor who completely disagrees with you. Here’s from my liner notes from one of the Recordings of the Century made by none other than the noted Bach conductor Otto Klemperer (the EMI Classic recording also features Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicollai Gedda, and Walter Berry PLUS the Boys of Hamstead Parish Church Choir, the Philharmonia Choir, and the Philharmonia Orchestra: not insubstantial forces): “The St. Matthew’s Passion is a sacred music drama on an unprecedented scale….The forces reuired to perform the St. Matthew Passion are greater than those which Bach assembled for almost any other of his compositions: two choruses, two orchestras, each with its own continuo organ, a group of soprogan oices to sing ghe cantus firmus of the opening movement, and an ensemble of soloists. With resources such as these, Bach, with genius and masterly intuition, was able to…create a cohesive drama of profound and sustained intensity.”

      Koopman, who is a well known authority on Baroque music and Bach (unlike you) also made a recent recording of this Bach piece with the Concertgebow Orchestra PLUS 3 choirs (although one admittedly had only 8 singers; another had 40) PLUS several soloists!

      Comment by fflambeau — April 26, 2018 @ 12:23 am

      • Oh good grief. Koopman was the other speaker in the NPR program (and Christoph Wolff, as I recall, though I listened to it once and that was enough). He has been arguing with Rifkin for years. He recorded the complete cantatas in boxed sets. There is some lovely singing on them. He claims they are the way Bach did it but his position is untenable. I don’t know why you don’t think I’m an authority on this, when this is clearly my field and clearly not yours (you have a pseudonym so I have no idea whom I am talking to). I’m a winner of the American Bach Society Research award (Scheide Prize). I have widely published on Bach and Telemann and other Baroque composers, I’m a Baroque flutist, I’ve been on the governing board of the American Bach Society and I ran a conference for the society a few years ago here at the UW. I have worked with the original performance material I have spoken on these topics at international conferences. You haven’t revealed who you are, and it makes no sense for me to continue to argue with you about this since I have no idea who your are and clearly this is not your field, although I sense that you are deeply invested in the music and a somewhat old-fashioned style of performance, but one that is meaningful to you. And that is fine. Just don’t claim that I don’t know what I’m talking about because it’s absurd. A performance tradition may develop (and this has something to do as well with the revival of the St. Matthew Passion in the 19th c. under Felix Mendelssohn and the Berlin Singakademie, where there was no question of reviving the work in the style of Bach’s time, of course). They also cut a fair amount of it out. And I need to teach tomorrow. And I don’t actually like Passions (even if the music is great, the text is hurtful). The performances with Bach’s forces are much more intimate, and that might not appeal to you since you seem to like lots of sound, but that’s what was done. The “big” versions developed later. It’s a performance tradition, but it’s not Bach’s performance tradition.I’m not going to argue with you any more. Enjoy it the way you want to enjoy it. It’s fine. Bach won’t notice at this point!

        Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 26, 2018 @ 12:59 am

  7. Fflambeau—I won’t address the performance. I wasn’t at the concert, just part of the dress rehearsal. But you also know nothing about Bach’s own performances. Bach wrote the piece for essentially 9 singers: four concertists in each ensemble for a total of 8, plus one ripienist who sang the chorale tune in the opening chorus and in the last piece. That was one singer. Bach (as was normal for the time) had no distinction between the choir and the soloists—the soloists together were the choir. The same for Telemann and their contemporaries. Sometimes a weak singer would have an added ripienist in the more fully scored parts of the piece (sometimes Bach would double a part with an instrument for the same reason). But generally this music was performed one person per part. In all of Bach’s cantatas 11 have four ripieno parts. Ripieno parts were usually written on a half sheet of paper and just include part of the opening chorus and the chorale at the end. They are clearly labeled, for example “Soprano in ripieno.” While we’re at it (just because it’s a pet peeve of mind, and you didn’t bring it up) the “fermatas” on the ends of lines of chorales aren’t fermatas isn’t the sense of holding notes; they just mark the ends of the lines. And they didn’t have subdivided meters (while I’m typing I might as well type…). Also, sermons in Bach’s time were very long. An hour would be average.

    Comment by Jeanne Swack — April 25, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    • I’m sorry but everything I have read about the St. Matthew’s Passion contradicts you. All sources indicate that Bach wrote for two choirs and two orchestras: plus he wrote arias for specific characters such as Jesus.

      As an example, this is from Tom Huizenga and Deceptive Cadence:

      “Bach built his Passion from choruses both small and large, and arias for specific characters such as Jesus, Judas, Peter and Pontius Pilate. The Evangelist, a role for tenor voice, is the principal storyteller, moving the drama along through through a kind of half sung, half spoken recitative. Supporting Bach’s massive structure are three grand choruses — at the beginning, middle and end — standing as tall pillars, holding up the surrounding music.

      The Passion begins with an immense wave of sound — an opening chorus constructed of an interlocking double choir with a children’s chorus soaring over the top — building with intensity and sweeping the listener into the drama.”

      It’s hard to see how an “immense wave of sound” could be built with the forces you mention, isn’t it? By the way, you give no sources for your claims, do you have them? And if Bach wrote for the limited voices you indicate why 2 choirs, separate voices and 2 orchestras? Why divide forces into two separate areas of the church (I’ve actually been in the choir loft at the Church where this was sung in Leipzig and estimate that 40 people could easily be fit in one of the choir lofts). Why have so many subsequent performances of this piece also used similar forces to those employed in the Taylor production (I gave an example of one outstanding recording in my first piece). Another is a more recent performance (2010) by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle that featured the BPO, 2 choirs (Knaben des Staats and the Domchors Berlin), 2 choirmasters, and at least 6 soloists. I didn’t attend the actual concert but have viewed the CD and these are very large forces.

      And you–like Barker–seem to forget that this was a concert given by an educational institution in which the conductor very reasonably seemed to decide that she wanted to employ lots of the people who are studying Bach.

      Comment by fflambeau — April 25, 2018 @ 9:18 pm

  8. A typical review by Barker full of faint praise and some damning personal observations/slights, usually wrong or with limited insights.

    1. Barker dwells on the size of the choral forces involved in this performance: ” This was hardly a balanced combination and Bach himself could never have assembled, much less managed, so huge a chorus as this. It certainly overwhelmed the orchestras… .”

    Well, Bach himself saw this is as a major work utilizing large forces. He himself conducted 2 choirs and 2 orchestras in two separate areas of the very large church in Leipzig where he taught. Plus, one of the leading recordings of the same piece, a Decca recording featuring Sir David Willcocks utilizes the Bach Choir plus the Boy’s Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a chamber orchestra on modern instruments (roughly equivalent to what was used in Madison).

    I suspect also that Beverly Taylor, like most choral directors, including Bach, was using the forces she had at hand and which could be afforded and balancing those thoughts with the educational role that singing in such a group affords. Shouldn’t a music critic, especially one who was a professor at one time, realize that?

    2. Barker takes some pot shots at the instrumentation, noting none of it was on authentic instruments. Well, so what? “No antiquarian, conductor Beverly Taylor… .” And: “…a pair of student orchestras numbering 14 and 12 respectively, all playing modern instruments.” Silly things, shouldn’t they realize that using old instruments makes for a superior sound? Except, hang on, so many great musicians disagree with this odd idea (and of course the reality is ignored that the students in these groups do NOT have such instruments). It should also be noted that the above Decca recording by Sir David Willcocks also uses “just” modern instruments.

    3. Barker complains about the lengthy intermission. It is true that this is a deviation from the times of Bach: the original intermission (hundreds of years ago) was only the length of the sermon. But times have changed and this piece was not performed in a church setting.

    I suspect also that this was a trade-off for most people allowing time to meet and greet performers and friends. (and it was well advertised beforehand). It basically is a matter of personal taste.

    I could go on. But what’s the use?

    Comment by fflambeau — April 25, 2018 @ 2:01 am

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