This week is Holy Week for Western Christianity. On Good Friday Christians celebrate the Crucifixion of Jesus and on Easter Sunday his Resurrection.
Throughout the ages people have been inspired by these events to create works of art. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1498) is world famous.
For me the most impressive musical work of art about the last days of Jesus’ life has been written by Johan Sebastian Bach in 1727: the St Matthew passion.
When I was a school boy, my father took me for the first time to the Matthäus-Passion as it is called in German. It was performed in a church, and the atmosphere was religious. No applause for example after the concert! At that young age it was a long session, more than three hours. Still I was impressed.
When I moved to Amsterdam in 1961 for my studies, I became a regular concertgoer, mostly listening to the Matthäus Passion in the Concertgebouw. I think I must have attended it more than 40 times.
Although I am an atheist, Bach’s music still can move me to tears. For example this aria: Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (Out of love my Savior is willing to die)
Now that I live most of the time in Malaysia, I can not always attend live performances of the Matthäus Passion, as the work has never been performed here as far as I know. But no problem, I have a few recordings on CD and we have now YouTube!
You can find there a large number of recordings. Here is my favourite: a recording by Dutch conductor and harpsichordist Ton Koopman in the St Joris church in Amersfoort, March 2005. Very clear and transparent, impressive soloists.
The orchestra is playing on authentic Baroque instruments, as is common practice these days. Also considerably faster than in the past. The (beautiful) recording in 1971 by Karl Richter takes 3 hours and 18 minutes, more than half an hour longer than Koopman’s recording.
One more recording deserves to be mentioned. In 1989 Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman’s teacher, recorded the Matthäus Passion, with the female parts (alto & soprano) sung by males (counter-tenors and boy-sopranos/altos) as was a common practice in Bach’s time.
Bach has written more Passions, but of those only the St John Passion has survived. More dramatic, shorter, for many years I did not pay much attention to it. But that has changed…:-) Here is a recording by Ton Koopman . My favourite aria in this Passion is “Es ist volbracht”, written for alto. In Koopman’s recording it is sung by Andreas Scholl.
Listen to the performance by Panito Iconomou, boy alto in the Tölzer Boys Choir. Harnoncourt is the conductor. Try not tot get emotional…:-)
One closing remark.
It has always intrigued me that for Bach (a Lutheran Christian), it seems that the death of Jesus is the end of the story. There is no expectation of a resurrection. In the final chorus of the St Matthew, the choir starts with: “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down in tears“). They continue with “Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!” (“Rest gently, gently rest!“)