About a month and a half ago Erato released its first recording of Marc Minkowski conducting the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This involves him working with the French period instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre (the musicians of the Louvre), which he founded in Paris in 1982. Since 1996, however, it has been based in the Couvent des Minimes de Grenoble (Minim Monastery of Grenoble), quite some distance from the palace for which it was named. For this “Bach debut” recording, Minkowski selected the BWV 245 Passion oratorio based on the Gospel of John, a two-CD album.
Les Musiciens du Louvre has resources typical of a historically-informed approach to the performance of Bach. The two violin sections each have four players; and there are pairs of players for viola, viola d’amore, cello, flute, and oboe. That leaves individual players for the continuo instruments: gamba, bass, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, harpsichord, and theorbo. More important is that there are only nine participating vocalists: sopranos Ditte Andersen and Lenneke Ruiten, altos Delphine Galou and David Hansen, tenors Lothar Odinius and Colin Balzer, and basses Christian Immler and Felix Speer. Odinius sings the music for the Evangelist, Immler depicts Jesus, and Speer sings the roles of both Peter and Pilate. All of the vocalists take solos in aria movements. There is no chorus of additional vocalists.
The result is that this is one of the most transparent recordings of BWV 245 currently available. Furthermore, that transparency allows Minkowski to work with relatively brisk tempi. He is hardly the only conductor to take this approach, but those of my generation tend to welcome each new effort to break loose from the tediously sacrosanct rhetoric that burdened just about every recording of Bach’s music, regardless of genre, during the first half of the twentieth century. More important is that Minkowski knows how to go fast without sounding as if he has a train to catch, a trait that has been serving him particularly well here in San Francisco, where he is conducting the contemporary instruments in the pit of the War Memorial Opera House for performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni by the San Francisco Opera.
As an atheist I am somewhat limited in my ability to discuss rhetorical approaches to settings of the Passion text. However, it would be fair to say that Minkowski’s approach tends to evoke a setting more consistent with a Sunday School classroom than a cathedral congregation. The result is that the Evangelist comes across as telling a story; and, every now and then, an aria soloist comes along to give the narrative “artistic verisimilitude” through “corroborative detail” (with apologies to W. S. Gilbert). The overly pious might take this to be irreverent, but more likely it is a technique that brings the story closer to the listener than might be achieved through mere recitation.
The overall result is that even those familiar with any number of recordings of BWV 245 are likely to find themselves listening closely to the freshness of Minkowski’s approach.