Here’s something a little bit different for your Monday amusement. Erbarme Dich is probably the most famous contralto aria from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. It’s sung after Peter has denied Jesus three times, and, sung well, is an absolutely compelling portrayal of grief and guilt. It’s also very firmly part of theWestern musical canon.
So here it is, translated into Arabic. And when I say translated, I’m not just talking about the lyrics – the style both of singing and playing has a decidedly middle-Eastern feel. And it’s rather amazing. The solo violin in this piece, as was pointed out to me recently, has a sound rather similar to
Jewish liturgical Eastern European Jewish violin music, and this Eastern influence is brought very much to the fore here.
In all honesty, I can’t quite decide whether I love this or not. I’m not quite sure that the central section feels anguished enough for my taste, and I both adore this radically different singing style and find it slightly off-putting. Either way, I can’t ignore it, which I think is the hallmark of very good music, no matter what one thinks of it. I’ll have to keep an ear out for what other things Fadia el-Hage and the Ensemble Sarband have been doing.
The lyrics in English, incidentally, translate to “Have mercy on me, O God, for my tears’ sake. See, heart and eye cry for thee, bitterly. Have mercy on me, O God, for my tears’ sake.” And yes, that’s not a lot of lyrics for seven minutes of music, but that’s sort of the point – all the arias in this oratorio have very simple, short texts, which are repeated so that the music almost becomes a meditation on these repeated phrases. I would love to sing a full version of this Oratorio sometime. I think it would be amazing.
Here’s a more conventional version, sung by Julia Hamari, just for the sake of comparison. Very gorgeous, and I could listen to her for hours.
And, just for fun, here’s a version sung by countertenor Andreas Scholl. I’m not sure what I think of this, to be honest; he does sing it beautifully, but I do think Bach’s intention was to have a female voice here (I’ve heard the alto soloist’s role in this Oratorio described as that of Mary Magdalene, so decidedly feminine – though I’ve also heard it described as the voice of the believing soul, which would fit the almost sexless sound of a countertenor voice). I’m not sure this aria works as well when it’s at the top of the singer’s range as it does when it is in the lower-middle area, though Scholl certainly gets the drama into it, which is important.