As Bach heard it?
So, randomly, I bought Paul McCreesh's Matthäus-Passion (Archiv) today. It is on the first wave of the one-voice-to-a-part school of Baroque performance. On the one hand, it is a very well-done performance of HIP Bach. However, I think that McCreesh - in a his historical zeal - misses what Bach saw for what he heard.
I will say this upfront: my favorite moment in all music comes in movement 1, "Kommt, ihr Töchter," when the sopranos intone "O Lamm Gottes" across the main theme. With McCreesh's leveling of the singers, chorus, and orchestra, this moment is downplayed. The shimmering sopranos, inching up along the main theme, in Gardiner's performance are to be the exemplar on this point. Otherwise, it is lost. McCreesh's Matthäus-Passion is full of moments like this. We are a long way from Klemperer and even Gardiner seems distant.
However, I think that it is essential to hear the Matthäus-Passion as Bach would have. There is no performance that can effectively recreate the genius that Bach wrote on the page. In fact, in this work of all, there is no way to approach Bach's seemingly superhuman understanding of the things that define humanity. Not even Glenn Gould (for example), at his most inspired in 1981, could fully realize the Aria da Capo in the Goldbergs. That simple statement, almost a joke, of the source whence all the wonderful explorations launched eluded one of the keyboard genii of all time. In a work dramatizing the most dramatic event in Western history - nay, the event of Western history - some clearance must be given to err on the side of history. In that way, McCreesh recreates a performance that is probably like one Bach heard in his life in Leipzig.
In the end, though, any discussion of a performance approach must center on this question: do we want to recreate what Bach heard, or what he would want to have heard? I don't know, but I have a guess.