About this Recording
8.550832-34 - BACH, J.S.: St. Matthew Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

St. Matthew Passion

The career of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most illustrious of a prolific musical family, falls neatly into three unequal parts. Born in 1685 in Eisenach, from the age of ten Bach lived and studied music with his elder brother in Ohrdruf, after the death of both his parents. After a series of appointments as organist and briefly as a court musician, he became, in 1708, court organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the elder of the two brothers who jointly ruled the duchy. In 1714 he was promoted to the position of Konzertmeister to the Duke, but in 1717, after a brief period of imprisonment for his temerity in seeking to leave the Duke's service, he abandoned Weimar to become Court Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a position he held until 1723. From then until his death in 1750 he lived in Leipzig, where he was Thomaskantor, teaching at the choirschool and with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches, in 1729 assuming direction of the university collegium musicum, founded by Telemann in 1702.

At Weimar Bach had been principally employed as an organist, and his compositions of the period include a considerable amount written for the instrument on which he was recognised as a virtuoso performer. At Cöthen, where Pietist traditions dominated the court, he had no church duties, and was responsible rather for court music. The period brought the composition of a number of instrumental works. The final 27 years of Bach's life brought a variety of preoccupations, and while his official employment necessitated the provision of church music, he was able, among other things, to provide music for the university collegium musicum and to write or re-arrange a number of important works for the keyboard.

The traditional Roman liturgy involves the singing of the Passions, accounts of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, on four days preceding Easter. On Palm Sunday the first account, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, is sung, followed on the Wednesday of Holy Week by the narrative of St. Luke, with that of St. Mark on Maundy Thursday and that of St. John on Good Friday. The accounts of the Passion as found in the four Gospels naturally lend themselves to performance by more than one singer, an element of drama provided with the words of Christ, Pilate and other individuals allotted to different voices. This seems to have become the practice by the thirteenth century, when liturgical drama had already become a regular part of Easter and Christmas ceremonies. By the early sixteenth century an element of polyphony had been introduced as a possible elaboration of the liturgical tradition. Various forms of sung Passion were taken over by Martin Luther, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century German Lutherans had elaborated these earlier types of Passion. The form used by Bach was that of the oratorio Passion, as developed in North Germany in the middle of the seventeenth century. Here the biblical text is interrupted by meditative episodes, occasional instrumental passages and newly harmonized chorales.

Bach composed five Passion settings, of which those based on the Gospels of St. Matthew and of St. John survive. His St. Mark Passion is lost and a fourth using the text of the Gospel of St. Luke, is considered spurious, while the fifth: referred to in Bach's Obituary, may be a single-choir version of the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew Passion in its full surviving version was first performed, according to current Lutheran custom, on Good Friday, either in 1727 or in 1729, and repeated with various revisions in 1736 and in 1740. It is scored for two choirs and two orchestras, a division physically possible in the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, where performances were first given. The final version of the work calls for flutes, oboes, oboe d'amore, cor anglais, bassoon, a string section including a viola da gamba and organ continuo for each of the instrumental ensembles.

The text of the St. Matthew Passion is taken, in the first place, from the Gospel of St. Matthew in the translation of Martin Luther. The narrative is sung by the Evangelist, a tenor, with the words of Christ, Peter, Judas and others allocated to different singers. In addition to the Biblical text there are recitatives and arias that offer reflection on the events of the Passion and chorales that allow the chorus to add its own more familiar meditation. The additional texts newly written for Bach are by Picander, the pseudonym of the Leipzig poet and civil servant Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote the additional text of Bach's St. Mark Passion and of a number of cantatas. The whole work is in two parts, the first of these taking the narrative from the events leading up to the Last Supper, to Gethsemane and the betrayal of Christ. The second part, after a contralto aria, opens with Christ before the High Priest and goes on to St. Peter's denial of Christ, the attempt of Judas to repent and Christ before Pilate, His condemnation, scourging and crucifixion, ending as Pilate orders a watch to be kept on the sepulchre.

Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra
Established in 1923 as the Budapest Municipal Orchestra, the orchestra was re-organized after the serious losses of the Second World War and in 1949 assumed its present name. Since 1952 the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra has been under the direction of its general music director Janos Ferencsik, its distinction officially recognised by the state in 1955. During the last thirty years the orchestra has played under conductors of the greatest international distinction, with 41 concerts under the baton of Otto Klemperer and appearances with other conductors and soloists of equally legendary fame. Considerable success has greeted the orchestra on its many foreign tours throughout Europe, to the United States, the Far East and Australia, and its work has met still wider acclaim from its many recordings, particularly for Hungaroton,

Geza Oberfrank
Geza Oberfrank was born in 1936 in Budapest, where he studied composition and conducting at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. From 1961 to 1974hewas conductor at the Hungarian State Opera and from 1974 to 1979 principal conductor at the Komische Oper in Berlin. In 1980 he returned to the Hungarian State Opera in a career that has also brought many engagements abroad in major opera-houses in Europe and elsewhere.

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