Every year, on the second Sunday before Easter, the Bach choir sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Festival hall. It is always superb and the choruses ring in your ears for days afterwards. This is partly because the music is one of the greatest works ever written but also, as you can see from the above photo, it is also because of the sheer force of sound from the monumental number of musicians involved: it was written for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra. Huge drama is inevitably also injected by a choir of the calibre of the Bach choir and by the top soloists in the world that are brought together. In Bach’s day, the available space in the Thomaskirchhof (St. Thomas church) in Leipzig where it was performed under Bach would have limited the size of the orchestras and choirs but today the work is usually performed as per the picture above. The Festival hall always makes a grand event of it – which is fitting with the music. It starts at 11am and breaks for a 2 hour lunch before resuming till around 4pm. There isn’t much point in my reviewing this year’s wonderful performance in detail for you as it is too late for you to go this year but I’d encourage you to mark it in your diaries for next year!
I went this year after a long gap of a number of years and was mesmerised by the music. If it is cloudy in your mind then listen to this short but wonderful youtube clip of the John Elliott Gardiner performance from 2013 with Andreas Schmidt as Jesus. If you feel inspired to hear more, go to Spotify, Amazon or any other music provider and listen to the whole work – or get it given to you as CDs for Christmas! Classic FM have reviewed some of the best recordings of the Matthew Passion. I usually listen to my box set at least once in the run up to Easter and it would definitely be on my desert island disks.
I seem to be (slightly more by accident than design) on a bit of a Bach pilgrimage at the moment having recently visited Thomaskirchhof (St Thomas church) in Leipzig where Bach was Kapellmeister for 20 years from 1723 till his death in 1750 and where he wrote the Matthew Passion (among many works) and, in the end, where he was buried. There was something rather wonderful about standing in the church where the great genius had produced some of the most wonderful music ever written. Although Leipzig has been a place of scholars and philosophers and musicians over the centuries, today I can’t honestly say it warrants more than a few hours spent there. But if you are nearby it is well worth a half day trip by train. We went from Dresden but you could also get there quite easily from Berlin.
We may have Mendelssohn to thank for the fact the Matthew Passion made it, indirectly, to the the Festival hall or to London at all. Until 1829 it had rarely been played in its complete version outside Leipzig. Mendelssohon’s maternal grandmother had been given a transcript of the score by Mendelssohn’s music tutor and Mendelsssohn himself set about putting on the performance of it in 1829 in Berlin to a rapturous audience and reviews. Even this version omitted a number of arias and choruses that over emphasised the drama of the passion story (so that it wouldn’t offend people) but it was by far the most complete performance outside Leipzig until this date.
Thankfully it made it out into the world for everyone to enjoy. Do listen to this great masterpiece in the run up to Easter. If you don’t have time for an uninterrupted performance in your living room, then just listen to half of it one day and the other half the next.