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Posted April 16, 2011
At the first notes, the listener is thrust into the scene of the plodding, dragging, ominous pace of Christ's torment-the imagination views Jesus hauling the cross through the city streets to Golgotha and crucifixion. The choir in its role of the Chorus rivets attention on the shock and dismay of standing in the midst of this horror. The pace is slow and agonizing, evoking the pain and hopelessness of the scene, and the crowd cries "Lord!! Lord!!"
The parts played in a traditional Passion format are executed flawlessly by the soloists and the Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Dresdner Staatskapelle under the direction of Peter Schreier. A new listener would be encouraged to familiarize himself with this format for richer understanding of the performance.
The Chorus again strikes home in "Let us then not cut or tear" in deciding to cast lots for the woven robe. The pettiness, gossip-sssh-ttsh-whisper-talk-tttsh-ssh sound through to underscore our own human reactions as the scavengers collect and divide the garments of the crucified Christ.
All soloists meet and exceed expectations for their particular roles in the drama. Selecting "best" is not possible among all-superior performances. The Chorus, however, in a forced ranking, would take first place. They play their parts memorably in every way: their diction is crisp; tempo never drags; there is no "punching" of notes; emotions guide the audience at every step. The Chorus assumes varied roles and plays them to perfection: the background painter, the chorus, the crowd, and the reliable provider of the chorale for instruction and reflection.
The Evangelist Peter Schreier presents the narrative clearly and dramatically.
The soprano's lyrical, colorful, accurate portrayal of the follower with a light pace brings us to the threshold of the reason for this story of agony-that Christ was sacrificed for the life, the soul of sinners. Roberta Alexander's high notes never lose the lilt and color of the joy of the follower, the lightness of the release from sin.
Later the mezzo-soprano Marjana Lipovsek soothes the stunned audience to say that all these events have transpired in the verification of ancient prophecy-"It is fulfilled." None of it is a surprise. The prediction has come to pass.
The bass aria "Bethink, thee, O my soul" seals the innermost connection with the listener. It envelops the listener in peaceful comfort amidst the frantic happenings. When the audience is wrapped in the emotion of the aria "Run, run, ...run ye souls" and scatters wildly, suddenly the Chorus injects a whisper " run where?" which introduces a tiny glimmer of escape from this devastation-that is, the soul has hope beyond this grim end. This glimmer is developed into the salvation that is the basis for Christianity.
Written for Good Friday 1724, Bach instructs the congregation about the Passion story, evokes the emotional reactions of the individual, takes the sinner to the depths of introspection and sorrow, and informs us of the release at the end of the narrative. The listener becomes a soul in the crowd participating in the events and feelings of the Crucifixion.
The master musician J.S. Bach has borne us on a musical journey to receive the Passion narrative from scripture, and to experience the emotion that is central to understanding the story. After nearly 300 years, this music is as relevant and personal as it was the day it was composed; doubtless it will continue to inspire and comfort for