Johann Sebastian Bach
Peter Schreier: tenor (Evangelist), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: bass (Jesus), Gundula Janowitz: soprano, Christa Ludwig: alto, Horst R. Laubenthal: tenor, Walter Berry: bass, Anton Diakov: bass
Helmuth Froschauer, chorus master
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Knabenstimmen des Staats- und Domchores Berlin
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1973 (1987)
Bach’s Matthäus Passion: History of a Masterpiece
«The composer wanted this Passion to be of general appeal, and indeed there is in this work a simplicity and directness not often to be found in Bach’s larger compositions. The motto which Beethoven placed in front of his Missa solemnis – “It comes from the heart – may it go to the heart” – can well be applied to this work too”».
With these words, Karl Geiringen described Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus Passion in The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius. This Passion is now rightly considered one of the most important sacred works ever written, but it fell into oblivion until the 19th century performance directed by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Matthäus Passion is one of Bach’s two surviving Passions, the other being the Johannes Passion (we recently reviewed a fine recording of the Johannes Passion that you can read here). However, Bach wrote three more Passions, but only the text used for St Mark survives, while the other two are completely lost.
Little is known about the genesis of Matthäus Passion. It was composed to a libretto by Christian Friedrich Henrici, a tax-collector who was famous as a poet as Picander. The first performance took place at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on April 11th, 1727 (Good Friday). It was performed many other times before Bach’s death, at least in 1729, 1736 (when Bach revised it) and 1742. Furthermore, its music was listened again when Bach re-used ten movements for the Cöthen funeral music of 1729. The Passion is orchestrated for two Kantoreien, doubles the normal number of instrumentalists and offers all the possible kinds of musical numbers as recitatives, arias, choruses and arioso to create a grandiose effect.
Bach’s Matthäus Passion: the Performance
Karajan senses and shares with Bach the purpose of magnificence and greatness. He gives unity and coherency to the work thanks to the adoption of original and very personal colours, particularly beautiful in the choruses, and of other effects as long final coronas, to convey a sense of elevation.
There is a marked difference in the treatment of solo and choral parts and if the former are more “descriptive”, in the latter there is an explosion of divine light. It is exactly in these moments that the Passion becomes animated as if it can completely express its sacred spirit. The greater brilliance of the chorus is anyway not unfavorable to the soloists, as they are all singers that usually collaborate with Karajan and that are fine indeed. It is enough to remember the impressive and noble Jesus of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the pitiful Evangelist of Peter Schreier together with the silvery and melodious voice of soprano Gundula Janowitz, the inspiring and rich alto voice of Christa Ludwig and those of their distinguished colleagues (Horst R. Laubenthal, Walter Berry and Anton Diakov). All of them offer performances that are never uninteresting and that offer instead many hints of meditation.
Karajan’s Matthäus Passion is monumental in character and great in majesty and is one of the best achievements in this genre.