Kurt Masur, Conductor - Matthias Goerne, Baritone (Jesus) - James Taylor, Tenor (Evangelist) - Christiane Libor, Soprano - Anna Larsson, Alto - Dietmar Kerschbaum, Tenor - David Pittsinger, Bass-baritone (Pilatus) - Jason Grant, Bass (Judas, Peter and Pontifex II) - Westminster Choir, Joe Miller, director - The American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, director
Bach's The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to Saint Matthew is, in the minds of many, the greatest piece of western classical music. It requires double orchestra, double chorus, and a large cast of soloists. Its dozens of component parts are beautifully designed and laid out to tell this central drama of the Christian religion: the trial, suffering, and death of Jesus as a redemptive act for humankind. Bach conceived and constructed his masterpiece on three levels: he tells the story of the passion through recitatives and choruses (the latter representing bystanders of Biblical times); he provides the deeper meaning and reflection on events in the arias, set on new texts; and the symbolic joining into the drama by the congregation is accomplished in the chorales, settings of 16 verses from the Lutheran hymnal (in Bach's time, they may very well have been sung by the congregation). The texts for the St. Matthew Passion were written by Bach's Leipzig collaborator, Christian Friedrich Henrici (aka Picander) and drawn from Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew.
Bach draws upon the unlimited reservoir of his genius to bring this amazing masterpiece to life. Among the many special effects to listen for is the Jesus "halo," a device Bach uses in passages where Jesus sings: such recitatives are always accompanied by the entire string section of the first orchestra (rather than the usual harpsichord). Only during Jesus's final words, "Eli, eli, lama sabachthani" ("My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?") the halo of music drops away. Bach considered this to be one of his most significant works--something attested to by the 1736 fair copy of the manuscript he made in 1736 in calligraphic style and using two colors of ink (dark brown and red, the latter used for the Biblical text of the Evangelist). The Passion was premiered on Good Friday in 1727 at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor. Though its form shocked audiences of the composer's day (too much like opera!, they said), it is viewed today as a deeply moving, spiritual experience. It has even permeated the popular consciousness, with section used in several movies, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Casino.