As part of Bach Variations: A Festival, the Gabrieli Consort and Players, under the direction of conductor Paul McCreesh, will perform two programs of Bach's most sacred music on Good Friday, April 18 (St. John Passion at Alice Tully Hall), and Easter Sunday, April 20 (Easter Oratorio and Magnificat at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola).
McCreesh's ensemble made a triumphant Lincoln Center debut last summer performing Handel's Esther during the truncated Mostly Mozart festival.
Although Bach's St. Matthew Passion is considered‹along with the B-Minor Mass‹the very summit of the composer's sacred choral repertoire, the less frequently performed St. John Passion has its strong adherents as well, and you can include among them Paul McCreesh.
"Both of Bach's Passions are in our core repertoire, and we do them with very small forces, including eight singers," he says. "The St. John Passion is an intensely dramatic piece, and the narrative lends itself to a more strongly dramatic performance. The St. Matthew Passion, on the other hand, is more contemplative in its pacing. But we never tire of doing either of these works."
Performing the St. John Passion in Alice Tully Hall is something McCreesh has anticipated ever since last summer's performance went over so well with audiences and critics. "It's a very nice hall for Baroque music," he says. "It's got a very good sound for a hall its size."
McCreesh knows that there are quite discernable differences between Alice Tully Hall‹whose acoustics were made for music‹and the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where the Gabrieli Consort plays its Easter Sunday performance.
"There are practical reasons why you can't do the St. John Passion in a church," McCreesh explains, noting that the scale of both of Bach's Passions are grander than most of his other sacred music. "I've played in this church before and it's quite a reverberant hall, so sound-wise, it will be a challenge. But what you lose in clarity, you gain in the bloom of the sound. And, let's face it, this music belongs in a sacred space."
Rather like the St. John Passion's subordinate relationship to the more popular St. Matthew, Bach's Easter Oratorio has never received the recognition of its sacred counterpart, the Christmas Oratorio, which leaves McCreesh mystified. "I'm not quite sure why the Easter Oratorio is relatively unknown," he says, "because it's an absolutely first-rate piece."
McCreesh also notes that it's even more musically wondrous and adventurous than the Christmas Oratorio. "Bach deliberately composed the piece with each movement becoming progressively shorter, so there's an extremely subtle form of pacing going on within the entire work," he says. "As so often with Bach, there's a real visceral approach to his dramatic ideas, which makes it very exciting to both play and hear."
As for the Magnificat, whose briskness and lightness of purpose‹at least when compared with the Passions or the B-Minor Mass‹make it among the most immediately engaging of Bach's major sacred works, McCreesh says, "it's the one piece of Bach's that you never really 'know,'" most likely because the composer's pure joyousness of spirit flows through every page of the score, making it a challenge to get a handle on such emotion.
Playing Bach's music on period instruments has its advantages and disadvantages, as McCreesh is the first to admit; staying true to the music doesn't simply mean playing it exactly as it was performed in the composer's time. "I believe both the Easter Oratorio and the Magnificat are solo-voice pieces, but one has to be pragmatic," he says. "When you do these pieces in very big churches, you have to take a more logical approach based on the space, so we're doing them for two singers on each part rather than just the usual one. But that's not an un-Bachian thing to do."
McCreesh is quite outspoken on the subject of the current period-instrument movement. "On one level, period-instrument music has most certainly come of age, since you don't have to fight for the aesthetics of the movement any more," he says. "But I'm a little concerned about the middle-age laziness that's creeping into many of these groups. A lot of the exciting pioneering work that was done 25 years ago is no longer happening. There's an awful lot of compromise going on.
"What's interesting about the Gabrieli Consort and Players is we never had the luxury of making many records and making lots of money doing it," he continues. "It's our duty to be hard-line about the pertinent issues. We are serious about scholarship but we are not scholarly‹I want to keep that energy and discovery. I have always wanted to re-create the excitement of the techniques as well as the music."
McCreesh bluntly states how that excitement is re-created by his group. "We smash the hell out of the instruments!" he says with a laugh. "You've got to communicate to the audience. Even if we're hard-line on certain things, you do have to realize that, for the music to be conveyed properly, you have to bend the rules a little when you're playing in front of 1,000 people."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.