For conductor Philippe Herreweghe, the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion has been virtually a lifelong experience. He first heard Bach's exalted sacred masterpiece as a child of six in Gent. By age seven, he was singing in one of the several amateur St. Matthew performances held every Easter in the beautiful Belgian city known for its cathedrals, choirs and Van Eyck's triptych The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
In his early 20s, Herreweghe gave up the study of psychiatry for that of music, coming of age as a chorus director during the period-performance revolution of the late 1960s and '70s. Since then, he has led some 120 performances of the St. Matthew Passion, not to mention recording the piece twice for Harmonia Mundi (in 1984 and 1998). In recent years, Herreweghe's evolution as a musician has seen him apply an enlightened brand of historicism to scores from later eras. One of these is another iconic sacred choral and orchestral masterwork: Ludwig van Beethoven's Mass in D Major, the Missa solemnis.
In what is probably an unprecedented double feature, Herreweghe conducts both the St. Matthew Passion and the Missa solemnis in the space of three days in March at Alice Tully Hall. On the evening of March 5, Herreweghe leads the choir and period-instrument orchestra of his Collegium Vocale Gent in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Two days later, he leads the Collegium Vocale choir and the expanded ensemble of the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées in an afternoon performance of the Missa solemnis.
Herreweghe, 56, founded the choir of Collegium Vocale in 1970 with the avant-garde aim of singing the works of Bach and such predecessors as Schütz in a far simpler, more intimate style than the grand, near-operatic Romantic tradition had come to assume. Recognizing kindred spirits that could better blend with harpsichords and Baroque fiddles, the pioneering early-music maestros Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt drafted Herreweghe and his choir into their epochal Telefunken/Teldec project of recording all of Bach's more than 200 cantatas in period style.
The inspirational example of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt led Herreweghe to eventually expand his Collegium Vocale to encompass an orchestra that would perform on Baroque instruments. He has since come to direct a series of period-instrument ensembles, which he has described as being "like a poupée russe, a Russian doll that fits one inside the other." The Collegium Vocale performs Bach and other Baroque repertoire, with the group expanding as the La Chapelle Royale for more extravagant, often French Baroque, works. Switching to instruments of a later era, the versatile core performers of these ensembles are joined by other players to form the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, a group Herreweghe founded in Paris in 1991 as a vehicle for Classical and Romantic repertoire.
Over the decades, Herreweghe's relationship to the St. Matthew Passion has been one of discovery and rediscovery. In the early 1980s, his approach was in line with the overall aims of his peers in the early-music "authenticity" movement, striving to reveal a historically plausible Bachian sound‹one marked by a bracing, highly textured intimacy rather than the overawed monumentalism often cultivated by early 20th-century performers.
"I am the first to admire the best symphony orchestras and the great interpreters of the past," Herreweghe insists. "There can be such technical skill and high emotional power in the performance of a modern orchestra. But considering the Bach interpretations of earlier generations, Klemperer's let us say, I hear more Klemperer in these recordings than Bach. This being said, I would much rather hear an artist like Maurizio Pollini play Bach on a Bösendorfer than a mediocre performer play Bach on a harpsichord."
After the early-music revolution eventually carried the day in repertoire from the Baroque and before, Herreweghe went his own way. His recent thinking on Bach tempers the external, rhetorical aspects of his initial efforts in favor of a more refined, inward sound and sensibility. "Although it was a necessary corrective at the time, we over-emphasized detail at the expense of Bach's broader lines," he says. "I believe that the music, to maximize its expressiveness, should breathe with legato, naturally. Purists may say that I've gone back to romanticizing the music, but I'll let others judge."
A fundamental source for Herreweghe's mature philosophy on Bachian performance style is his background with choruses. "Most of the leaders in the early authenticist movement were instrumentalists‹Leonhardt, the harpsichordist; Harnoncourt, the cellist‹with an emphasis on instrumental values, such as ornament and articulation," he points out. "If the Collegium Vocale is unique, it is because we approach the music more from the voice or, rather, from the text and then the voice. And for the St. Matthew, our tempos tend to be those of the spoken word, as in the natural rhythm for the delivery of a sermon."
Herreweghe also uses a larger choir than in the more radical period-St. Matthew performances that feature one-on-a-part choral singing. "This would be perfectly right for the early Weimar cantatas, but not for the St. Matthew or B-minor Mass," he says. "I'm not a musicologist but a musician, and I find that the balance between choir and soloist is lost with too few singers. Bach himself was a practical, resourceful musician, and I believe he would want a little power for the choruses."
For the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion on April 11, 1727 in Leipzig's St. Thomas Church (as well as at least four subsequent renditions led by the composer in 1729, 1736, and 1744), Bach most likely used boy singers, not only in the choir but as soloists. These boys would have been very well-trained 16- or 17-year-olds, whose voices broke later than those of today's boy trebles.
As Herreweghe points out, our age doesn't produce a surfeit of boy soloists able to bear Bach's demands with grace. For the St. Matthew performance at Alice Tully, the professional lineup includes tenor Mark Padmore as the Evangelist and baritone Sebastian Noack as Christ, along with soprano Letitzia Scherrer, mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis, and bass Michael Volle. Yet, because of Herreweghe's belief in the enduring emotional resonance of boys' voices, certain choruses will benefit from the American Boychoir of Princeton, New Jersey.
For the Alice Tully performance of the imposing Missa solemnis‹a concert work since its premiere on April 7, 1824, in St. Petersburg‹the Collegium Vocale choir and Orchestre des Champs-Élysées will again be joined by Scherrer and Volle as soloists, along with mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and tenor Steve Davislim.
If the St. Matthew Passion comes as naturally as breathing to Herreweghe, the Missa solemnis remains "very difficult," he says. "Beethoven demanded the heroic from the chorus and the soloists, especially the sopranos. And some passages are incredibly complex for the conductor to rehearse, even though they may seem perfectly clear when listening. Like Beethoven's late string quartets, which are from the same period, the Missa solemnis can be mystifying, even as you feel the composer's genius."
In many of his works, Beethoven's fast tempo indications are infamously difficult to achieve, to the point of being mostly ignored over the years. This is where the benefits of historically minded performances of Beethoven come in, according to Herreweghe: "On the right instruments played in the proper style, you find that Beethoven's written tempi are ideal for his works. In this, we have an advantage over traditional orchestras by coming to Beethoven from Bach, rather than from Wagner."
With his various ensembles, Herreweghe has created a vast discography for the French independent label Harmonia Mundi, stretching from Josquin masses to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. No matter which period he and his charges apply themselves to, their goal is not a literal period authenticity, "which is unattainable," he insists.
"Not only are the halls and the conditions for making and listening to music different from hundreds of years ago," Herreweghe says, "but we simply don't have the mentalities of those people, such as the universal set of beliefs that Bach and even Beethoven expected in the audiences for their sacred works. But in doing our best, we can hope to capture the intrinsic authenticity of a work, the sound, style and spirit of the music as we today hear and relate to it."
Bradley Bambarger writes frequently about the arts.