Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Passion in English

Passiontide has come. That means that in many places Passions, and in particular the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach, are going to be performed. The recording industry doesn't let this time of the year pass by unnoticed either. One of the most recent releases is a recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion by the ensemble Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore (Orchid Classics).

This ensemble has made several fine recordings, but mostly of lesser-known repertoire. From that perspective a recording like this may come as a surprise. It is the recording of a live performance on Good Friday 2009. The peculiarity of this performance is that Bach's Passion is sung on an English text, in a new translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell. "Their aim was to use language close to that currently spoken", according to the liner notes. The Bach expert John Butt is very enthusiastic about the translation, something which I find incomprehensible.

I don't understand the reasoning behind such an undertaking. The booklet says that the translators believe a translation like theirs "would more effectively communicate the Passion narrative". It is worthwhile to translate the lyrics of the original as accurately as possible, in order to communicate the content to an audience which doesn't understand German. But in this case the translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music. And that causes all sorts of problems.

In many respects we notice here the same problems as in Ton Koopman's reconstruction of Bach's St Mark Passion. Here the problems are even greater because of the difference in language. In general the music and the English text just don't match. In some recitatives there are more notes than text, and parts of the text have to be repeated. Bach never does so in his recitatives. Often the problem is solved by melismas on syllables or words - again, something Bach hardly ever does in his recitatives. In other cases the problem is the opposite: there is too much text for the music, and that is 'solved' by splitting a note into two.

The effect of the repetition of "bin ich's" by the various voices, representing the disciples (no 9) is strongly reduced in the translation: "Lord, is it me?" The power of the closing word "schlug" in the chorus "Weissage uns, Christe, wer ist's, der dich schlug" is taken away as in the translation the last note has to be split on the words "struck you" (no 36).

There are also a number of passages where images in the original text have disappeared. The accompanied recitative 'Du lieber Heiland du' (no 5) has been translated in such a way that the picture of the believer dropping a tear on Jesus' head has disappeared and with it the connection to the woman pouring ointment on Jesus' head.

Bach's text also contains connections which are not specified and left to the 'informed believer'. An example is the picture of the dove in the accompanied recitative 'Am Abend da es kühle war' (no 64), where Bach just suggests a connection to the dove returning to Noah after the Flood. The translators felt the need to spell it out: "At evening homeward turned the dove. Her olive-leaf showed floods receding". In the closing chorus 'Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder' the translation says: "At your grave, O Jesu blest, may we in our sad dejection find the hope of resurrection". But the St Matthew Passion doesn't refer to the resurrection, at least not in the free poetic texts. And that is not without a reason.

There is more, like the fact that some accompanied recitatives don't rhyme, that the translation is inconsistent in using "me" and "us" in these recitatives and that the translation of a number of chorales moves too far away from the original. I could go on, but I'll save that for my forthcoming review on Musicweb International and on musica Dei donum. I'll also explain there why the performance - apart from the issue of the language - is pretty dreadful.

Sure, in many ways the translators have done a fine job and there are several passages where they have translated the original quite well. But this translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music, and there it fails to convince.

As a matter of fact Bach's St Matthew Passion is every inch German, and the English translation violates the very character of Bach's music. The two languages are pretty much each other's opposites. This recording show once again: English is English and German is German and never the twain shall meet.

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