St Matthew Passion, written in the year 1727, is the second
of three (surviving) passions by J.S. Bach. The others being the
St John (1724) and the St Mark Passions (1731). Only
parts of the latter now remain. However, the St Matthew Passion
is way beyond the other two passions, or anything customary of its
day, for its sheer scale of conception, its internal and external
dimensions! Indeed, it has been referred to as the Great
Passion by some Bach scholars.
this "Great Passion", there are individual voices which 'play' the
roles of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, among others, in the forms of dialogue,
arias, recitatives and arioso, in a sense acting out the libretto
while the Evangelist narrates the passion story. Punctuating these
are large choral settings based on some of the most popular church
hymns of the day. The B minor Mass lacks recitatives, ariosi and
certain types of aria; the St John dispenses with large-scale
chorale settings and some kinds of accompanied recitative - but
the St Matthew embraces all these forms within its sacred
conception. Such a design surpasses everything previously written,
the variety of forms and devices chosen for their ability to confer
dramatic structure and intensity to the Passion story - so much
so that parallels have been drawn between it and the most representative
genre of that age - the Baroque opera.
Bach's St Matthew Passion contradicts theories that it is
possibly a secular work, for the nature of its musical elaboration
is clearly typical of the church style of his day. By this evidence
and more, it is clear to scholars that the St Matthew Passion
hence forms the very pinnacle of vocal works destined for church
festivals rather than the dramatic opera stage.
II The Anointing in Bethany
III Juda's Betrayal
IV The Last Supper
V Jesus's despair in the Mount of Olives
VI The Prayer on the Mount of Olives
VII The Seizure of Christ
IX His Interrogation by the High Priests
V Peter's Denial
XI Judas in the Temple
XII Jesus before Pilate
XIII The Scourging of Jesus
XIV Simon of Cyrene
XV The Crucifixtion
XVI The Descent from the Cross
XVII The Burial
Passion story is divided into several actions (see box), before
and after the Sermon on the Mount of Olives. These make up the main
scenes of the St Matthew Passion for which J.S. Bach provided
music; setting them to a libretto written by Christian Friedrich
opening chorus "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen"
("Come ye daughters, share my mourning"), has always been one of
the most inspired of all music to me. I remember spinning this movement
in the silence of my own room whenever I feel very down - the lifting
phrases, alternating between the winds and the strings seem to rise
into heaven, carrying me with it; while in the background, a persistent
ostinato bass drives in a feeling of the impending, the inevitable.
I would always be moved to tears.
Rilling captures this essence most movingly, one hears a cutting
sadness, made all the more driving by an interestingly efficient
articulation. It creates a sense of pressing genuflection. It demands
fear. A sense of fearful gratitude - "All sin for our sake bearing,
else would we die despairing". "Believe!", Rilling cries in this
music: "Believe!!" The entire orchestral and choral ensemble responds
with such a fantastic eagerness of sound as the movement draws to
an end - how better to set the stage for real drama to unfold ?
Rilling's reading is by no means perfect. But in such a large and
long work, few productions can ever claim perfection. There are
some phrases here and there in which one would hear a little choral
harshness, some imbalance between orchestral parts; but these are
inevitable. Rilling's very fine reading catches the essential in
this music with minimal sacrifice to details.
also to how he highlights the rarified individual parts in CD 1
Track 27, which then leads into the very exciting double chorus,
stratified as it were, into three levels of contrasting excitment!
to CD 3 Track 10, "Am Abend" (No.64 "At evening") to hear
Rilling's subtle control of the string section to paint a picture
of insensible and detached loneliness. Elsewhere, he makes many
similar remarkable and interesting use of Bach's orchestral writing
to underline the dramatic impact of the Passion story.
Bach Collegium Stuttgart supports with miraculous accompaniment
under Rilling's direction. This group of first class artists are
assured soloists that play together with clean ensemble work. They
are full of virtuosity, yet sensitive, subtle and always retaining
a sense of proportion. Soloists deserving specific mention include
the absolutely great oboe and flute section. Listen also to the
fascinating string ensemble work for the opening of CD2 Track 13
"Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder" (No.42 "Give me back my Lord").
This are mere examples. Truly, they are the most unsung of the heros
here - working wonders quietly in the back ground, bringing out
the best in the solo or choral voices.
Schade can be at parts a raw and chilling Evangelist, full of dramatic
weight and intensity. He relegates beauty of tone to second place
and plays his narrator role with much vigour. One senses an assured
technique, but may be at times forced to disagree with his much
too buccal tone. This can get irritating but one forgives on the
account that he fulfills Rilling's dramatic reading. Hear the uncontainable
excitement in his voice in his beautiful rendition of "O Schmerz!"
(No.19 "O grief!") on CD1 Track 19.
Thomas Quasthoff (left), who takes all the bass arias, should be
complimented in his account of the aria "Gebt mir meinen Jesum
wieder!" He has a bright ring to his bass voice, a nice change
to other overly mellow basses. Sample also his beautiful rendition
of "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (No.65 "Make thee clean,
my heart, from sin") on CD3 Track 11. Some remarkable artistry there!
is played by the authoritative voice of Matthias Goerne. At once
full of presence, his bass has an aura that is illuminating. This
makes for an epic, sometimes overbearing Jesus, contrasting with
Andreas Schimdt's sensitive portrayal on Gardiner's Archiv version
(427 648-2), but nevertheless it is still apt and effective. Hear
him at his best in CD1 Track 11 - "Trinken alle daraus" (No.11
"Drink ye all of it" ) - Such a glorious voice!
Crucifixion (1524), by Jörg Breu the Elder
Christiane Oelze has an impeccable technique, with a lovely light
and yet dark timbre, somewhat similar to a boy's timbre but nonetheless
unmistakably mature. She colours it very well for her rendition of
"Blute nur, du liebes Herz!" (No.8 "Break and die, Thous dearest
heart" - CD1 Track 8) and her aria "Ich will dir mein Herz schenken"
(No.13 - CD1 Track 13) is as good as it can get. However, there is
an incompatibility in the voices of the two leading ladies which make
the soprano and alto duet (No.27 "Behold, my saviour now is taken")
on CD 1 Track 27 somewhat disturbing.
wrote some of the most beautiful arias, ever, for the alto voice,
in his St.Matthew Passion. Ingeborg Danz makes the most of
them. Her "Erbame dich" is certainly one of the best that
I have heard. This version benefits from Rilling's romanticized
treatment somewhat. I have never heard it done this way but it is
convincing - legato lines are incensed with a gentle moody lilt,
gracefully supporting her sorrowful voice. Mention must also be
made of the solo violin here for its emphatically evocative playing.
Hear also CD2 Track 23, Kännen Tränen meiner Wangen (No.52
"Be my weeping and my wailing"). Elsewhere on CD3 Track 5, "Ach
Golgatha!", Ingeborg Danz has a slight operatic largeness, somewhat
inappropriate, but her beautiful alto voice still compels.
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart is a fantastic chorus. Choral settings
are remarkably mellifluous - hear the famous "O Haupt voll Blut
und Wunden" (No.54 "O sacred head sore wounded") on CD2 Track
25, taken close to perfection. In the important "La§ ihn kreuzigen!"
- "Let him be crucified!" - on CD 2 Track 20, and the following
chorus, there is a hint of insufficiency, a lacking in conviction
somewhat, but their tight ensemble work remains flawless. Also sample
the double chorus 66b on CD3 Track 12 "Herr wir haben gedacht.."
for much choral excitment.
Rilling's reading of the Passion takes into account Bach's predilection
for dramatic intensity and in a sense fulfills the Passion's internal
desire to be dramatised. What we hear becomes very moving passages
not removed from their original intentions to inform, to teach,
and to touch. If Bach was his own dramaturg, Rilling is this production's
visual director, for he creates 'scenes' out of the St Matthew
- not mere audio movements. This version should certainly count
among the best available today.
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