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29th March 2015
The first time a British audience heard any part of the St Matthew Passion was 110 years after it was composed, at a concert in Birmingham in 1837 where Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the aria ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’. By the 1850s, Bach’s choral music was becoming more familiar, and William Sterndale Bennett had founded the Bach Society which performed the St Matthew Passion in English on 6 April 1854 in the Hanover Square Rooms. The Bach Choir was founded in 1876 to give the first performance in England of Bach’s B minor Mass, but it was not until 15 March 1894 that the Choir, conducted by C V Stanford, undertook its own first performance of the work, more or less complete, in German. In the 1930s the Choir established a tradition that the work was performed in English twice every year, on the Sundays leading up to Easter, based on the edition first published in 1911 by Edward Elgar and Ivor Atkins.
This tradition was substantially altered in 1999, when the distinguished tenor singer Neil Jenkins published a new English translation, in which he has thoroughly revised the text in order to restore to their original form the notes which had been altered to fit the earlier English versions. Our understanding of the performance of Baroque music has much increased in recent years, and the Choir’s collaboration with the renowned Florilegium orchestra is another important step in this direction.
Listen to the final chorus of the St Matthew Passion, sung by The Bach Choir with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden in April 2014.
Recording courtesy of RTHK
We regret that Iestyn Davies has had to pull out of this concert due to unforeseen circumstances, but we are delighted that Christine Rice (pictured, right) has agreed to step in, at short notice. One of the leading British mezzo sopanos of her generation, Christine Rice is a regular performer both at the major European opera houses and on the concert platform, where she has built a reputation both as a singing actress and a Handelian of the highest order.
We are very grateful to Brindley Sherratt (pictured, left) who has stepped in at the last minute to replace Matthew Best, who is indisposed. Brindley Sherratt is in great demand as a soloist on the concert platform; recent appearances have included the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with Pappano; the Hallé Orchestra with Elder; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Nézet-Séguin; the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées with Langrée; the Swedish Radio Orchestra with Harding; the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Nelson; the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Bicket and the Monteverdi Choir with Gardiner.
Notes From the Composer / Conductor
Not the composer or conductor, but this year’s Evangelist, Ben Johnson, who answered a few of our questions about the St Matthew Passion.
Tell us how you approach the role of the Evangelist and about the challenges it brings?
I approach the role with great care and seriousness. It takes a great deal of time (even having performed the work often) to get back into the area of the work. By this, I mean one must plan one’s journey carefully. The pacing is, of course, all important. The Evangelist is the glue of the work so I take time to reconsider which parts should be declaimed, whispered, rushed, or slowed down? The answers may be different depending on whether I am singing in English or German. And the major question for me is how emotionally affected (or involved) I am. Bach’s music gives the biggest clue, but again, it is to all be carefully considered. The St Matthew Passion is perhaps the work I revere the most. I’d go so far as saying I think it the greatest musical work ever composed. So I approach this role with much respect !
What does this performance by The Bach Choir each year represent to you?
The Bach Choir’s performances at the RFH are a British institution. It is mind boggling to think of all the singers who have taken part in this event over the years. My first teacher was a wonderful evangelist (Neil Mackie) and he taught the work to me and also described his memories of The Bach Choir events. For me, then, it is simply a great honour to take to the stage with David and the Choir.
What’s your view on the debate regarding English or German?
Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m rather indifferent to this debate. I love to perform the work in German, of course. But I see no reason why choirs and audiences in the UK shouldn’t enjoy the work in English, too. The two can happily live side by side. The structural integrity of the music is unharmed by English performances (this is Bach, after all!), so no problem, in my view.
Why do you think that this work is so popular? How has it stood the test of time?
Difficult! I might not have enough space here to explain why in detail! Its genius, for me, is in its all-encompassing nature. It has everything from high drama to the most moving intimacy. It contains some of Bach’s most beautifully lyric writing, too. It’s my number one desert island disc. Always has been since I first heard it. Always will be.
What’s your favourite part of the St Matthew Passion?
All of it!