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Classical 101

The Bach Passions for Holy Week

The title page of Bach's autographed score of the St. Matthew Passion.

A love for the choral music of J.S. Bach shouldn't be limited to Holy Week. Yet that's when I find myself reaching for the Passions, both the St John and the St Matthew.

Messiah, and any other Handel oratorio, I can listen to any time, "all day, every day." I never tire of them. I never tire of Bach exactly, but the Passions demand a different level of attentiveness and a deeper mind set, at least for me.


I grew up on Otto Klemperer's monumental-some would say granitic-recording of the St. Matthew Passion, Matthauspassion, if you want to be completely accurate. It was musically state-of-the-art in the early 1960s; stately tempi, a large vibrato rich orchestra, the Philharmonia, and a big chorus that could sound hushed and full throated at the same time. How to better the soloists? Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as Jesus and Peter Pears portrayed the Evangelist. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at her least mannered;for once she was more about mood than she was about Elisabeth, with Christa Ludwig and Nicolai Gedda. I heard later that Sir Peter Pears so hated this performance that he insisted on redoing all of the Evangelists' lines without Klemperer being in the studio. Phooey.

The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt died a few weeks ago. I'm listening to his second recording of the Matthauspassion as I type these  lines. I suppose you could say that any recording in the past twenty years is in total contrast to the Klemperer. But this is rich sounding too, though fleeter of tempi. You get the sense that a story is being told rather than preached.


I have on my desk a 1937 recording of the St. Matthew Passion,  sung in English by the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choir and the Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.  Dr. Koussevitzky's Good Friday matinee's of the St. Matthew were both acclaimed and anticipated. This at a time when Bach was always sung in a large choir high calorie glory, and certainly at Harvard.

I'm less familiar with the Johannespassion​, Bach's St. John Passion. This work has a bad rap for its seeming denunciation of the Jews. Remember both of these Passions were performed in context of day-long religious services at the Lutheran Johanneskirche in Leipzig. Nobody was sitting in a concert hall, they were in church on Good Friday. What was acceptable then is anathema today, but Bach's meditative glory usually rules. 

I also have a little-known recording of the St. John, made in Vienna in 1961. Hermann Scherchen conducts, with Otto Wiener as Jesus and John Van Kesteren as the Evangelist. Otherwise it's a largely American lineup of soloists, with the Vienna Academy Chorus and Staastoper Orchestra: Phyllis Curtin, the great American soprano, and contralto Eunice Alberts. To me, Ms. Alberts was Mrs.  Nicholson, the mother of my 7th grade girlfriend in Lexington, Massachusetts.


Staying close to a different home for me, I enjoy Apollo's Fire's recording of the St. John. It's good to hear a fine performance recorded two hours away, regardless of whose mother any of the soloists may be!


May you have a Blessed Holy Week!


Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.