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A guide to JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion and its best recordings

A powerful setting of Jesus's final days, the St Matthew Passion was responsible for the resurgence of interest in JS Bach's sacred choral music after the composer's death. Here is our guide to understanding the work and our recommendations for its best recording

Matthew Passion Gardiner

What is JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion?

JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a passion oratorio, which sets to music the 26th and 27th chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel from the German Lutheran bible. These chapters detail the last days of Christ’s life, retold here by solo voices, double orchestra and double chorus. The St Matthew Passion is one of two passion settings by Bach that survive today – the other being his earlier St John Passion.

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While the St Matthew Passion’s source material emanates from the bible, Bach also relied on contemporary poetry by librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici (known at the time as Picander) and included 12 traditional chorales to form what is known as the ‘Great Passion’. First written and performed in 1727, the score as we know it now comes from the revised editions of 1743-6.

Performances of the St Matthew Passion were revived in 1829 by Felix Mendelssohn who, describing it as ‘the greatest of all Christian works’, also instigated a wider renaissance of the composer’s sacred choral music. In its recording history, interpretations of the St Matthew Passion differ in terms of language, duration, ensemble size and instrumentation, among other variables.

The St Matthew Passion is the longest of all Bach’s works. While recordings vary based on tempo, most performances last between two-and-a-half to three hours.

Why did JS Bach write St Matthew Passion?

Bach was the Thomaskantor, or musical director, for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche from 1723. It is widely accepted that Bach debuted his St Matthew Passion at the church’s vespers service for Good Friday on 11 April 1727. The extravagant work was written to reflect this crucial moment in the Lutheran calendar: the sombre, dramatic sacrifice of Jesus’s life for his followers. Divided into two movements, the Passion was structured to encompass the service’s sermon in the middle of the performance. Considering a typical Lutheran sermon lasted for an hour, the Good Friday congregation would have been in for the long haul.

The polyphony of the piece was inspired by the Thomaskirche’s layout, with performers split between the church’s two organ lofts. This facilitated the dramatic elements of the Passion, such as interaction between solo characters and turba (crowd) choruses.

What is the story of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion?

Passion narratives can vary in terms of the biblical events they include, but all recount the final stage of Jesus’s life. The first movement of Bach’s St Matthew Passion begins with Jesus’s betrayal by Judas, follows the Last Supper and ends with Jesus’s arrest by the Romans at Gethsemane. After the sermon, the Passion resumes with Jesus’s interrogation by the high priests and his crucifixion and death, ending the whole work with the sealing of his tomb.

As the work is performed on Good Friday, the overall atmosphere is one of sobriety and grief and the narrative ends before Jesus’s resurrection, a celebration reserved for Easter Sunday.

The soloists of Bach’s Passion reflect important characters in the narrative: Jesus, Judas, Peter, two high priests, Pontius Pilate and his wife, two witnesses and two maids. Soloists are often given arias, but also perform with the choruses, who represent small groups of people separately or large crowds (turba choruses) collectively. The disciples are always performed by Chorus I.

The character of Jesus (or the Voice of Christ) is performed by a bass soloist, accompanied by the string section of the first orchestra in his ariosos. The strings are often referred to as Jesus’s ‘halo’. Only once is Jesus without his ‘halo’: reciting his final words ‘Oh God why have you forsaken me?’.

The work is narrated by a tenor Evangelist, singing the Gospel texts in secco recitative, accompanied only by a basso continuo (usually a cello or viola da gamba and keyboard). At the moment of Christ’s death, the Evangelist delivers a renowned recitative that brims with drama as the veil of the temple is torn in two.

The best recording of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Anne Sofie von Otter, Ann Monoyios, Barbara Bonney, Howard Crook, Andreas Schmidt, Cornelius Hauptmann, Olaf Bär, Michael Chance, Patrick Russill; English Baroque Soloists; Monteverdi Choir; The London Oratory Junior Choir/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktions 4276482   (1988)

From the day of its release, John Eliot Gardiner‘s 1988 recording with The English Baroque Soloists and The Monteverdi Choir planted itself firmly among the list of favourite recordings. Conducting a period ensemble, Gardiner’s meticulous attention to detail produces the benchmark for authenticity. Directing with a crystal-clear understanding of the work and its musical and theatrical demands, he leads a brisker tempo than some of his contemporaries to best enhance the dramatic energy and urgency of the narrative.

The vision conceived by Gardiner is superbly executed by his soloists and ensembles. Tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson sets the bar especially high for all aspiring Evangelists and The Monteverdi Choir performs with the utmost precision.

Gardiner has since revisited the St Matthew Passion, recording a live concert performance in 2017 on The Monteverdi Choir’s own label. Though also highly recommended, it doesn’t quite match the sheer visceral thrill of his first recording.

Read more reviews of the latest John Eliot Gardiner recordings

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Six other great recordings of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry; Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Otto Klemperer
Warner Classics 2435675382   (1962)

Klemperer’s interpretation is renowned not only for its star-studded cast, but also for its reverence: the opening chorus nearly reaches the 12-minute mark, whereas most other performances take between six and eight minutes for the same music. While the slower pace is admittedly divisive, there is no denying that its stately nature highlights the details in Bach’s music, allowing the audience to fully appreciate its technical grandeur. Wallowing in the sombre work and its emotional intensity is a prerequisite when entering Klemperer’s soundworld.

Read our review of this recording here

Gerd Türk, Peter Kooij, Nancy Argenta, Robin Blaze, Makoto Sakurada, Chiyuki Urano; Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
BIS Records BISCD 1000-02   (1999)

‘Masaaki Suzuki brings to the St Matthew Passion the same devotional intensity that has characterised his Bach cantata recordings,’ writes BBC Music Magazine reviewer Graham Lock. ‘This focus is immediately evident in the opening chorus/chorale, which he imbues with compelling power despite opting to use relatively small vocal and orchestral forces throughout. It is evident, too, in Bach Collegium Japan’s impeccable performances, which bespeak a score explored in meticulous detail and with profound affection.’

Suzuki and his team have since recorded the St Matthew Passion for a second time, also with great success.

Read our full review of this recording here

Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann, Bernarda Fink, Elisabeth von Magnus, Christoph Prégardien, Michael Schade, Markus Schäfer, Dietrich Henschel, Matthias Goerne, Oliver Widmer; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Vienna Boys Choir/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Teldec Das Alte Werk 8573-81036-2  (2000)

According to our reviewer Nicholas Anderson, ‘A conspicuous and consistently pleasing aspect of this new performance lies in its refined phrasing and light articulation. Add to these virtues Harnoncourt’s dramatically orientated view of the work, his long experience with Bach’s sacred vocal music and his contemplative responses to it, and you have a version that is rewarding indeed.’

Read our full review of this recording here

Ian Bostridge, Franz-Josef Selig, Sibylla Rubens, Andreas Scholl, Werner Güra, Dietrich Henschel; Cantate Domino Schola Cantorum, Collegium Vocale & Collegium Vocale Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonia Mundi HMC901676-78   (2000)

Reviewer Antony Bye writes: ‘One might hesitate to call Herreweghe’s reading lightweight: his forces are relatively large in number and his tempi brisk (though never undignified). But he seems more intent on clarifying the work’s architecture, pointing up its symmetries, rather than exploring its emotional and theological implications. In this respect, at least, a comparison with Klemperer seems valid.’

Read our full review of this recording here

Deborah York, Julia Gooding, Magdalena Kozená, Susan Bickley, Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Peter Harvey, Stephan Loges; Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
DG Archiv 4742002   (2002)

McCreesh’s recording is the first to sit just one singer per part, a stripped down but no less effecting interpretation of the St Matthew Passion. For our reviewer George Pratt, ‘the lyrical elements – the arias – are beautifully managed, particularly in the striking moments of elation, pairs of oboes and their d’amore/da caccia relations, flutes, and solo and ensemble strings dancing with light-footed articulation and sparkling organ continuo. The eight vocalists create an effectual congregation in their devotional role, singing heartfelt chorales mercifully free from sanctimonious pauses.’

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Mark Padmore, Christian Gerhaher, Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kozena, Topi Lehtipuu, Thomas Quasthoff; Berliner Philharmoniker, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR140021   (2014)

Our reviewer, Paul Riley, was enamoured with this production’s casting: ‘Padmore is a great Evangelist and this must be his greatest performance of the role. Spatially despatched to a balcony, Christian Gerhaher’s Christus is the son of (every)man, while the symbiosis entwining vocal and instrumental soloists leavens Simon Rattle’s compelling musical direction. Ultimately, a St Matthew Passion even greater than the sum of its parts – and they were already pretty awesome to begin with!’

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