THE ST. MATTHEW PASSION
Johann Sebastian Bach will forever be known as one of the true giants of music history, and the St. Matthew Passion is one of his most profoundly moving masterpieces. In this performance, we’ll hear baritone Peter Mattei among the other world-famous soloists.
It is unclear how many times Johann Sebastian Bach composed the Passions, the gospel accounts of Jesus’s suffering and death. Unfortunately, only two have been preserved: The St. John’s Passion, premièred in 1724, and the St. Matthew Passion, probably premièred the same year it was written, in 1727. The place was of course the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach had been the cantor since 1723.
The St. Matthew Passion is one of music history’s most titanic masterpieces, strongly contributing to Bach’s nickname as “the fifth evangelist” or “God’s musician”. However, such romantic euphemisms do not seem to conform with the composer’s self-image. The Gospel of Matthew is much more comprehensive and detailed in its story of Jesus on the cross than that of John the Evangelist, which is also reflected in the latter’s work. The St. Matthew Passion is on a grander scale, composed for solo voices, double choir and double orchestra. Conveniently, the St. Thomas Church had double organ lofts of different sizes.
The text consists of chapters 26 and 27 in the Gospel according to Matthew of the Lutheran Bible, but there are also glimpses of the Song of Songs. In addition, there are arias and hymns, the latter by various authors and selected by Bach himself. The librettist was Picander, the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici, with a reputation as a rather minor master. This text is considered his foremost achievement, probably written in close collaboration with the composer. The central figure is the Evangelist who drives the narrative forward, while other song soloists give voice to the various participants of the drama.
Bach’s notes from 1729 about his experience of what had previously been assumed to be the première, indicate certain artistic shortcomings. On Good Friday that same year, there was another Passion, by Gottfried Frober, who was drawing the crowds. Even back then, it was difficult to choose between all the cultural events on offer. Leipzig is also said to have been a conservative city from a musical perspective. A description from 1732 of what is probably Bach’s St. Matthew Passion speaks of tremendous confusion, with comments like “God preserve us, my children! it’s like a comic opera”. Probably not a common reaction today.
In 1829, the celebrated, twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn staged a successful revival of the, then rather forgotten, masterpiece in a performance in Berlin. It was the first time the work had been played outside Leipzig and the interest in Bach’s entire oeuvre was instantaneously reignited. A gift to the young Felix Mendelssohn a few years earlier from his grandmother, the score of the St. Matthew Passion, had truly borne fruit!
Text: Gunnar Lanzky-Otto
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra serves as a symphony orchestra for the whole of Sweden. Regardless of where you live you can listen to the orchestra’s concerts through the Swedish Radio’s broadcasts or on their website, and several concerts are also shown on Swedish Television. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of the best and most versatile orchestras in Europe – perhaps even in the world. Every year they perform well-loved works from the classical repertoire as well as new music by exciting contemporary composers such as Victoria Borisova-Ollas, Magnus Lindberg and Unsuk Chin. In addition they perform music from popular films and computer and video games and collaborate with leading jazz, pop and rock artists in a constant endeavour to develop and to break new ground.
The Swedish Radio Choir is like a leading mountaineer in the world of music. The choir’s former chief conductor Peter Dijkstra has described the ensemble as “the group that leaves base camp first and stakes out the course for others to follow.” Three hundred years of Swedish a cappella tradition, combined with an ambitious and culturally diverse repertoire with some of the world’s finest conductors, has established the Swedish Radio Choir as one of the foremost ensembles of its kind. The 32 professional singers are as equally at home in completely new music by today’s most exciting composers as they are in classic favourites from the rich international treasure trove. Through the Swedish Radio’s broadcasts and website the choir not only reaches concert audiences but also radio listeners everywhere.
For Swedish audiences, the conductor Alan Gilbert is perhaps best known for being the Royal Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor from 2000–2008. Following that, he was the musical director of the New York Philharmonic for a similar period of time, and in September 2019, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, North German Radio’s Symphony Orchestra. With the support of the United Nations, he started the organisation Musicians for Unity, with the aim of bringing together musicians across national and generational borders to encourage peace, development and human rights. He won a Grammy in 2008 for Best Opera Recording for his staging of John Adam’s opera Doctor Atomic, which was also his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. He has been nominated for an Emmy on numerous occasions and has won prestigious awards for his work all over the world.
The bass barytone Shenyang was born in Tianjin in China and studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He has played the title role in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, and at the Metropolitan Opera he played Masetto in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Garibaldo in Handel’s Rodelinda and Colline in Puccini’s La Bohème. He has also performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 2010, he premièred Xiaogang Ye’s Song of Farewell, which was written for him, with China’s National Symphony Orchestra. The same year, he won the Montblanc New Voices Award at the Stars of the White Nights Festival.
Christina Landshamer is a much sought-after concert and opera singer. She has performed with conductors such as Kent Nagano, Roger Norrington and Ricardo Chailly, as well as with some of Europe’s most renowned orchestras including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Orchestre de Paris, as well as North American ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. Recently she performed in Britten’s Les Illuminations and Mozart’s Requiem as well as on tour with the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
The versatile tenor Nicholas Phan has appeared at the Los Angeles Opera, Glyndebourne, Deutsche Oper am Rhein and Maggio Musicale in Florence with leading roles in Bernstein’s Candide and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, as well as Fenton in Verdi’s Falstaff in his repertoire. Recently he debuted as Eumolpos in Stravinsky’s Perséphone and played the lead in Handel’s Jephtha. In addition, he has performed Antonie Plante’s orchestral arrangement of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. As a dedicated concert singer, he co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago in 2010, the aim of which is to promote and raise awareness of romances, lieder and vocal chamber music. He is Artistic Director of the CAIC.
With appearances at prestigious venues such as the Metropolitan in New York, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and the Salzburg Festival, Peter Mattei has positioned himself at the very highest level among international singers. In the spring of 2019, he performed the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at both the Wiener Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera. Recently he toured with Schubert’s Winterreise and he appeared in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin at Opernhaus Zürich and as Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal at the Metropolitan and the Paris Opera. His great concert repertoire includes works such as Sibelius’s Kullervo, Bach’s Passions and Brahm’s Ein deutsches Requiem.