The Organ

JS Bach, arranged and edited Robert Schumann (1851) Johannes-Passion BWV 245

JS Bach, arranged and edited Robert Schumann (1851) Johannes-Passion BWV 245
Soloists, chorus and Das Kleine Konzert, directed by Hermann Max
CPO 777 091/2 [two discs]

This is an issue of no little significance, for it offers the world premiere recording of Bach’s St John Passion as arranged and edited by another great composer, over one hundred years after the work first appeared. On April 13th 1851, for his opening concert as director of music in Dusseldorf, Robert Schumann chose JS Bach’s Johannes-Passion (the St John Passion). This was a courageous thing to do, for Bach’s Passions were at that time by no means as well-known, nor so highly regarded, as they are today. Schumann knew the Johannes-Passion well, although Mendelssohn – who was of course responsible in 1829 for the first performance in the 19th-century of the St Matthew Passion – never concerned himself with the shorter Johannes-Passion. In 1842, Schumann had analysed the latter work, and had also performed excerpts from it with his choral society in Dresden in the late 1840s.

But Schumann did not have at his disposal in Dusseldorf every instrument asked for by Bach, and, convinced of the unwarranted neglect of the Johannes-Passion in comparison with its larger companion-work, set about creating his own performing edition, or ‘version’. The changes he made were done mostly for practical reasons, but for his 1851 performance he demanded – and got – no fewer than seven soloists. The result was an edition of this great masterpiece as realised by another great German composer, and this first recording of Schumann’s version of the Johannes-Passion recreates, as far as is possible, the performing practice Schumann put into place, a century after Bach’s death. I believe it is as musically important as Mozart’s edition of Handel’s Messiah; it certainly deserves to be heard, not merely considered as an historical oddity.

This is not the place to go into detail regarding all of Schumann’s changes, which in some instances were quite far-reaching, but perhaps the most important aural difference is the use of piano, cello and double-bass as accompaniment for the recitatives. There are quite a few other significant alterations, perhaps chief amongst these being the very dramatic, quasi-operatic approach Schumann wanted in performance. It certainly makes a welcome change from the current fashion for those rather anaemic ‘authentic’ performances of Bach’s choral works, and sets a number of later problems of ‘authenticity’ itself, for music-making in Dusseldorf in 1850 was very different from that in Leipzig in about 1725. Thus, as it were, we have a ‘double-authentic problem’ with regard to performing this version, a problem which is, I believe, excellently solved in this most musical and utterly convincing account.

This is a very fine performance. The conductor, Hermann Max, who has researched Schumann’s edition thoroughly, chooses tempi which are absolutely right for this work. Everyone – the orchestra, soloists, and chorus – has time to phrase properly, which is not to say that Max’s tempi are slow: on the contrary, the dramaturgical nature of the work and its subject-matter move at exactly the right pace, but the conductor has at his disposal a very fine group of singers and instrumentalists. In this regard, the contralto Gerhild Romberger is quite outstanding and very moving in her aria Von der Stricken meiner Sunden, her seamless flow of expressive tone being exceptional. She is aided by some fine orchestral playing by Das Kleine Konzert, of just the right instrumental strength for this work in the early 1850s in Germany. The other main soloists are all excellent, contributing greatly to the success of this venture.

But over and above all of these undoubted qualities is the realisation of this great masterpiece as revealed through the ears of another great composer. It is a compelling experience, such as occurs relatively rarely in the world of classical recordings these days. This is a truly fine and affecting performance, outstandingly well recorded in the Basilika Knechtsteden – the acoustic of which is admirably caught – and I recommend this unique issue most strongly

Robert Matthew-Walker