St Matthew Passion was the first piece of music I ever truly dismantled as a conductor 15 years ago in an attempt to get under the skin of this incredible work of art. It is now three years since Armonico Consort’s last tour of Bach’s masterpiece, and whilst I have conducted the work countless times, I never fail to feel slightly daunted by the task of bringing it to life for the modern ear.
My preparation over the past month has been largely dominated by the revision of notes and musical structure. I conduct from the harpsichord, so I need to make sure I can play all the notes first without having to think about it! That being said, no matter how much I develop as a conductor, I never cease to be humbled by this vast masterpiece. Just when I think I have cracked exactly what Bach means, or exactly how I want a section to go, I notice something else – sometimes hidden, sometimes not – which more often than not changes the way I think.
Conducting the choral parts is really like conducting an opera chorus, and that is what I will be doing tonight during our first rehearsal. Bach was told by the Lutheran authorities that he must not write an opera, at all. But with the St Matthew Passion, that is pretty much what he did. In each of the choruses, the singers must adopt a different mind-set: they must be the collective disciples, the priests, the congregation of the church, the soldiers, the crowd. Bach so incredibly brings these to life by dotting round complex multiple entries, darting from voice to voice to depict the chaotic scenes that must have prevailed in the crowd’s reactions.
Given that tonight it is the first rehearsal with the chorus, we might not get onto the drama, but will certainly take a step along the way. My main job will be to bring the voices together, performing as one both stylistically and musically, and to get a perfect blend before I can take them to the extremes of their abilities, and towards further understanding what this great musician has done to the incredible story of the Passion of Christ.