One of the core works in the Western canon, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has amazed and challenged audiences since its first performance in 1729.
In this vast and ambitious work (one could never use the word “sprawling” to describe the music of a composer this disciplined), Bach took the generic Passion formula of liturgical music -- a choral rendition of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, sung in character -- and pushed it both musically and thematically into something close to a whole new realm of art.
One of the world’s great interpreters of Bach, Martin Haselböck, is bringing a rare performance of the full St. Matthew Passion to the Savannah Music Festival. One of only 13 dates in the world on this tour, the Festival appearance comprises a dual troupe of Haselböck’s own L.A.- based Musica Angelica and the acclaimed Vienna Academy, of which he is music director, as well as a host of vocal guests.
The scholarly yet affable Austrian -- who also holds the exalted position of Court Organist of Vienna -- spoke to us last week from the balcony of his hotel on the Mediterranean island of Tenerife, where he was scheduled to conduct an evening of Mozart and romantic composers that night.
How is Tenerife? I can hear the wind.
Martin Haselböck: Oh, it’s beautiful. I’m sitting here looking out over the beach right now as we’re talking. The orchestra here is fantastic, and they have this wonderful new auditorium right on the ocean where we’ll be playing.
As a Bach scholar, please explain for us the significance of the St. Matthew Passion.
Martin Haselböck: For me it’s the nucleus. It’s the biggest achievement of the music of Bach. Whatever baroque music could express, whatever it could invent, is included in this piece.
It’s the ideal connection between concert and opera. It has a lot of the aspects of opera without being an opera. It’s sacred without being purely sacred. It’s dramatic without being a stage piece.
For me it has so many dimensions. I’ve been living with this piece for 35 years, and whenever I do it, whether it’s a new tour or a new project or some new experience, I always discover new secrets in this piece.
Do you need a religious background to fully appreciate it?
Martin Haselböck: It depends on your depth of knowledge. Not just religious knowledge, but musical knowledge. Religious belief is not always connected with high art. Expressing religion for some people means simple songs and simple prayers. But in this piece we have proof that religion can be connected with art of the highest caliber. Everyone will be carried away by the sheer expression of beauty and intensity in this music.
A massive and eclectic group of performers will be here for this.
Martin Haselböck: It’s written for two orchestras, but normally when people do this piece they take a big orchestra and divide it into half. When I took over Musica Angelica, from the very beginning I had it in my mind to connect two roads. I had it as a goal this time to have one orchestra from the old world, and one from the new world and connect the two – for me it becomes symbolic to connect those two worlds.
How are your two orchestras different?
Martin Haselböck: The Vienna Academy is 25 years old and it started as a purely baroque orchestra. Then it got bigger and bigger, and in addition to playing Bach and Handel we added a lot of later repertoire -- for instance, right now we’re recording a complete set of Beethoven symphonies on period instruments. Musica Angelica is a relatively young group, that does only baroque music. It’s a really specialized group -- smaller, but more specialized.
There’s apparently an ongoing debate over the proper tempo in which to perform the Passion. Where do you stand on that?
Martin Haselböck: We know so much more than people knew about this piece even 50 years ago. This piece is so huge and enormous that for 200 years it was really never done without cuts. It was considered too long to be performed in full.
What we know today is that expression is not a question of tempo, but expressiveness. Overall we’re playing this much faster than 50 or even 10 years ago. From sources we have we can prove – and this is almost outside music, it’s in the realm of musicology and science -- we can actually prove that we are very close to the tempi Bach intended. If you compare us to a lot of recordings, you’ll find us on the lively side.
Is there any room for improvisation or individual interpretation of the music itself?
Martin Haselböck: Well, in Bach, like with Mozart, you cannot add additional ornaments. Bach is very severe with that. On the other hand, I’m used to working with different personalities in the vocal field. So whenever I feel the voice is asking for quicker tempi or slower, I’m very flexible.
Each singer has a definite, clear personality?
Martin Haselböck: Maybe it’s in the background -- Bach was writing in Leipzig at the time, and people wanted to hear opera but there was no opera house in Leipzig! So his Passion sort of took the meaning of opera.
Also, Bach has a musical system of symbols, where each instrumentalist represents some idea -- for example, flutes represent the human voice, the strings the glory of Jesus. So whenever a knowing listener heard it he knew what was happening.
The role of the Evangelist is like the narrator onstage. Jesus of course has a clear role, and four others have specific roles. In addition some members of the chorus sing so-called little roles.
We have three vocal soloists from America and three from Europe -- it’s almost symbolic. I have worked with all of them, so I know them quite well.
How do you work with the singers on characterization?
Martin Haselböck: I choose the people, so, it’s more like a question of casting. A lot depends on the role of the Evangelist, if you have a dramatic Evangelist or if you have a lyric one. With a lyric one, you have more time to listen. I have chosen an Evangelist who is not overdramatic, who is more of a lyric Evangelist. I chose a Jesus who is young, fresh and lively. It’s like casting roles in a movie or opera.
What can listeners expect in terms of the difference between period instrumentation and a modern symphony orchestra?
Martin Haselböck: First, there are a lot of instruments you usually do not hear -- the viola da gamba, some unusual oboe instruments, recorders. A huge variety of wood instruments.
Also I think in the beginning it will sound a little bit darker. At first it might sound not as expressive and not too bright. But if you listen a few minutes you’ll hear the single phrases much more clearly than with a modern orchestra. You don’t have a big melodic line -- there’s more phrasing, more motifs. It’s more of a speaking sound.
How many cities will be graced with this performance?
Martin Haselböck: Altogether we’re playing it 14 times on this tour, starting with two in Mexico City, then in L.A., after that in Savannah and then New York City. Then we’re in nine major concert halls in Europe.
Same performers at all?
Martin Haselböck: Same soloists, same orchestras. The only thing changing are the choruses -- I’m using three different choruses. In Savannah we’re using the Pacific Chorale from L.A.
I’m intrigued by your hobby of finding undiscovered musical works and bringing them to life onstage.
Martin Haselböck: It’s fascinating to live in a city like Vienna, where in libraries throughout the city there are literally hundreds of baroque operas and oratories waiting to be discovered. The thing to remember is if you see a score in earlier times, there was as much bad music then as in modern times. If you find a score you still have to say, “This is good, this is bad.” To be a detective is one thing, but to distinguish between good and bad pieces is another thing.
There was a big find in a library in Kiev recently, and suddenly you had about 1200 wonderful new pieces. But if you get closer you discover of those 1200 pieces only maybe 100-150 are of first quality. But that’s a lot, too.
Some libraries are better for us. For example, if you have a library where a king ordered his people, “Don’t give away my music, I want it never to be played anywhere else.” Well, that means all these pieces are brand-new discoveries today.
For me the score is the bible for a composer. Even for pieces that are performed quite often, I try not to hear it performed by others. I try to be fresh and look at only the score. If you hear a piece too often you’re not as free in your interpretation.
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22 at the Lucas Theatre. For tix and info go to www.savannahmusicfestival.org