Bach’s Matthäus-Passion was first performed on 11 April 1727 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The libretto by Picander (the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici) combines texts from the Gospels, lines from Protestant chorales (religious songs of the 16th and 17th centuries) and free “madrigal” verse – a veritable goldmine of religious poetry! The Matthäus-Passion – like the slightly earlier Johannes-Passion – was composed in a style that was new for the age. In the Matthäus-Passion Bach moreover used two choruses, two orchestras and two groups of soloists. The musicians were to be divided physically in the venue so that the sound emanated from different sides, creating an “effect of presence”.
Within the space of a concert hall it is hard to attain the full stereophonic effect envisaged by Bach, but the scale and emotionality of the work are present whatever the conditions may be.
The two parts of the Matthäus-Passion encapsulate the events of the Last Supper to Christ’s entombment. In the recitatives we hear the voice of the Evangelist, Christ’s own voice, the Apostles, the high priests and false witnesses – even the retorts of Pilate’s unnamed wife are present in the pages of Bach’s score. Two large choruses frame the Matthäus-Passion like a prologue and epilogue; the tale of each event conclude with an aria. Each of them is a masterpiece and it is sufficient to name the alto aria Erbarme dich which is performed at the moment of Peter’s repentance.