Matthew Passion - J.S. Bach

Final performing version, c.1742

The first recording to show Bach's masterpiece with the composer's final revisions - a benchmark recording.

Matthew Passion - J.S. Bach

  • John Butt - Director 
  • Nicholas Mulroy - Evangelist
  • Matthew Brook - Jesus
  • Susan Hamilton - soprano
  • Cecilia Osmond - soprano
  • Clare Wilkinson - alto
  • Annie Gill - alto
  • Malcolm Bennett - tenor
  • Brian Bannatyne-Scott - bass

Bach's Matthew Passion

The Passion story was represented in a musical-dramatic tradition well before the invention of opera and oratorio. But it was only a matter of time before these later dramatic genres would cross-fertilize with the earlier traditions. This began to happen towards the end of the seventeenth century as librettists and composers increasingly embellished the Gospel texts with free arias, meditations and demanding obbligati. Many composers sought to capitalize on the operatic conventions that congregations would have experienced in the world of secular entertainment. Nevertheless, the Passion in oratorio style did not arrive in Leipzig until 1717 (at the modish Neue-Kirche), and the ageing Johann Kuhnau did not introduce an Oratorio Passion at the Cantorate of the Thomasschule until 1721, thus shortly before Bach himself came to Leipzig (1723). So, one of the greatest ironies about Bach's Passions is that their original audiences were far less familiar with the genre than we are; moreover - as is the case with all Bach's most celebrated music - we might have heard them many more times than did the original performers or even Bach himself.

Bach's Passions were performed during the afternoon Vesper service on Good Friday, their two parts replacing the cantata and Magnificat which were normally presented on either side of the sermon. Like Bach's cantatas, the Passions assimilate something of the sermon's function, since the free poetry of the arias, ariosos and framing choruses provide both a commentary and an emotional interpretation of the biblical text in the world of the listener. This is something quite different from the function of an aria in opera, which normally develops a specific character within the represented world. But it is not difficult to understand some of the complaints about the new Passion genre from congregations in Lutheran Germany; Passions do, after all, borrow liberally from secular conventions such as dance and, particularly, opera.

Particularly striking in the construction of both the free poetry (by the Leipzig poet, Christian Friedrich Henrici, or ‘Picander') and Bach's musical setting is the emphasis on dialogue form - necessitating the performing format of double chorus and orchestra. This rhetorical device allows for contrasting or even opposing moods to be presented simultaneously (e.g. ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen'/‘Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!'), complementary viewpoints (‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesu hin'/‘Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen') or a dialogue between a single speaker and a group (‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen'/‘So schlafen unsre Sünden ein'). All of these devices serve to personify the various ‘voices' within a single listener, acting out one's own reactions and conflicts.

The most impressive of the dialogue numbers is the opening chorus, which sets out some of the topics that the meditative numbers are to cover; indeed it seeds several words that open later arias. It is cast as a dialogue between Christian believers and ‘the Daughter of Zion' (one of the allegorical personages from the Song of Songs, reinterpreted as contemporary witnesses to Jesus's suffering). The theme of Solomon's love is recast in a Christian context with Jesus as the loving bridegroom and the church as his bride. A third element is introduced with the German chorale on the Agnus Dei, ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig', sung by ripieno sopranos. Christ is thus portrayed as an innocent sacrificial lamb, an image that points towards the Apocalypse when Christ as a lamb rules the New Jerusalem, a bridegroom to the (‘feminine') community of all believers. In the work as a whole, Bach spun a dialogue between Old and New Testaments, between these and the Lutheran tradition (e.g. the traditional chorales) and between all these and the believer of his own time. It may well be that this sense of continual conversation is what has rendered this work so durable in later contexts, drawing in the listener to continue the conversation, whether within or without the Christian tradition.

Bach shared something of the encyclopaedic urge of his age, and compiled virtually every possible musical form available: recitatives (accompanied and secco), arioso, aria (including dance and concerto elements), chorales, chorale fantasias, choruses and motets. Together with two elements unusual in Bach's works - the doubled forces and the string ‘halo' for Christ's utterances - these render it even more ambitious than his more brutally immediate John Passion.

With its unfolding levels of symbolism, theological interpretation and - most striking of all - psychological insight, the Matthew Passion is perhaps the most challenging and ambitious artwork on a Christian subject. It is thus not entirely surprising that Bach seems to have spent considerable time and care in preparing the work. He possibly began writing it as early as 1725 but clearly did not finish or perfect it in time for the Good Friday performance (the John Passion had to be repeated). Bach did not present the Matthew Passion until 1727 and recast it in its most familiar form in 1736. This recording is the first to present the work with Bach's final revisions of scoring, as performed around 1742.

©John Butt, 2008

Matthew Passion - J.S. Bach

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