Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: New Interpretations of a Masterwork

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: New Interpretations of a Masterwork

Written by Anne E. Johnson

There have been some great creative duos in music history. The pairing of Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte justifiably gets a lot of attention – they wrote Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro, after all. But there’s another perfect music-and-words match that should be remembered with just as much celebration: J.S. Bach and the German poet who called himself Picander. One of their masterworks, the St. Matthew Passion, is available in several new recordings that more or less do justice to the joint creativity of these two artists.

Bach and Picander wrote the St. Matthew for Holy Week in 1727 at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was the music director. For its text, Picander combined several elements: Lutheran chorale texts designed to comment on Biblical passages, his own contemplative poetry on Christ’s Passion, parts of a pre-existing text called the Brockespassion, and quotations from Chapters 26 and 27 of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. Those Gospel chapters tell Matthew’s version of the usual Passion story, from Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples through the Crucifixion. Because this is a Passion for the Lutheran faith, Bach built Lutheran chorale melodies into some of the movements.

The piece calls for two small choruses and two small orchestras, all of which were tucked into St. Thomas’ two organ lofts at the premiere. Since the earliest days of musical Passion-writing, the sacred text from the Bible has always been handled in a special way. In this case, the tenor soloist performing as the Evangelist (i.e., Matthew) sings in secco recitative, accompanied only by basso continuo instruments, as do singers covering the roles of Pilate, Pilate’s Wife, and Jesus. This distinguishes liturgical text from the other sections of the libretto, which use full orchestra. The other soloists, who sing their parts as recitatives and arias or in duets, are soprano, alto (often sung by a male alto), tenor, and bass.

The best of the recent recordings of this glorious work, on Harmonia Mundi, is by the Ensemble Pygmalion under their director, Raphaël Pichon. The Evangelist is tenor Julian Prégardien, while the other solo duties are distributed among the gifted singers of Pygmalion. One of those is contralto Lucile Richardot, whose liquid voice intertwines gracefully with the two oboe obbligato lines in “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand” (See, Jesus has stretched out his hand).

The alto solos are shared with male alto Tim Mead, who seems to embroider with his voice on “Können Träner meinen Wangen” (If the tears on my cheeks). Bass Christian Immler is furiously energetic on “Gebt mir meinem Jesu wieder!” (Give me my Jesus back) while the violins of Pygmalion sculpt an intricate accompaniment. In her solos, soprano Sabine Devieilhe has an almost woody, recorder-like sound.

Arguably, the true test of any oratorio performance lies in the chorus (in this case choruses). Working as two polyphonic groups, in a technique Bach first experimented with for his motets, Pygmalion’s vocal ensemble has both power and precision. They are joined by another chorus, the Mâitrise de Radio France, in the opening movement, under Pichon’s purposeful guidance.

A second new St. Matthew recording, this one on the Hänssler label, features the Wiltener Sängerknaben and the Academia Jacobus Stainer, with director Johannes Stecher at the harpsichord.

It’s interesting to compare the opening movement with that of Pygmalion. First, Stecher’s tempo is faster, giving the 6/8 meter a sense of an underlying gigue dance, which is intriguing and historically sensible. But when the voices come in, the gigue is up, so to speak. The Wiltener chorus and AJS orchestra are much larger than Pygmalion (or what Bach would have ever used, since his instructions were to stick with numbers that could fit in the St. Thomas organ lofts), so the sound is muddy, and the precision gone.

There is not a single female singer involved in this recording, so both alto and soprano solos go to boys. Not even adult male altos and sopranos, but boys. While this may well be how it was often performed in the 18th century (Bach himself was famed as a boy soprano), it is dramatically problematic from a modern point of view. These kids are too young to understand the import of the texts they’re singing, and it shows. Nor do their young voices have the control and nuance to give Bach’s writing its due.

The result is solos like this one by Pascal Ladner, who has a pure, sweet sound but none of the gravitas needed for the text of “Ach, nun is mein Jesus hin” (Alas, now my Jesus is gone).

Thankfully there are far more adults in the room (and even some women!) for the Accentus Music release of the St. Matthew Passion by the Gaechinger Cantorey, conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann. The Stuttgart-based Gaechinger Cantorey is a vocal and instrumental ensemble that prides itself on its “Bach-style sound.” They’re joined here by soprano Isabel Schicketanz, alto Marie Henriette Reinhold. Reinhold has the honor of singing one of the most beautiful arias Bach ever wrote, “Buß und Reu” (Repentance and regret). I prefer this aria sung with less vibrato to bare its grief, but Reinhold’s phrasing is always musical, and the Gaechinger woodwinds are charming.

Patrick Grahl has a calming clarity as the Evangelist, and Benedikt Kristjánsson delivers the tenor arias with heartfelt emotion. While bass Peter Harvey sings the words of Jesus, fellow bass Krešimir Stražanac, who sings the low arias, is especially effective in his interaction with the choir and English horn on “O Schmerz!” (Oh, pain).

And the all-important choruses are well prepared to tackle Bach’s difficult double polyphony, as can be heard this uncluttered, unhurried rendition of the Lutheran chorale verse “Was will mein Gott, das gscheh allzeit” (Whatever my God wants, may it always happen).

The St. Matthew Passion is one of those works that rewards re-listening. Not only should we be grateful to have so many recordings to choose from (my personal favorite is the 1999 Harmonia Mundi version with Philippe Herreweghe conducting Collegium Vocale Gent and featuring Ian Bostridge and Andreas Scholl), we should also remember how lucky we are that Bach and Picander wrote it at all.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/johnhuxley.

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