Bach’s St Matthew Passion is the ultimate depiction of the torture and (attempted) murder of Jesus Christ: the most beautiful, the most harrowing and the most innovative. And, if you are unlucky enough to get trapped in a bad performance, the most boring. Unlike Handel’s Messiah, it doesn’t provide amateur singers with bouncy tunes suited to wobbly voices. Even Bach’s earlier St John Passion is action-packed compared to the St Matthew, in which the Gospel narrative is constantly interrupted by soloists meditating on Jesus’s suffering, often at extraordinary length.
Soloists dread this piece. In some arias, the vocal line shoots up and down like a heart monitor. The role of the Evangelist requires a tenor who can slide and twist his voice around sadistic ornaments while still being able to float boyishly to the top of his register. No wonder world-class Evangelists are as rare as Wagnerian Heldentenors.
The St Matthew Passion is gory, too: even more than the Gospel itself. The non-biblical sections of the libretto, by Christian Friedrich Henrici, writing under the nom de plume Picander, are gruesome and guilt-ridden. There are references to blood, tears, weeping, distress or mourning on every page. Until Mel Gibson’s terrible film, this was the most graphic reconstruction of the Passion.
u201COh head, bloody and wounded, full of pain and scorn,u201D begins the famous Passion chorale, set to the most desolate of all hymn tunes, u201CHerzlich tut mich verlangenu201D. When Jesus is scourged, Bach writes a lashing figure for the violins and violas that depicts the blows of the whips. In other places, the patter of quavers represents drops of blood and tears.
At today's brisk tempos, the St Matthew Passion runs for two and three-quarter hours; under the baton of an old-school German maestro, it stretched to well over three. In 1736, when the congregation of St Thomas's, Leipzig, heard the full version for the first time, the sermon in between the two halves and the prayers afterwards would have stretched the service to around four hours. Tough going, even in an era of long attention spans. One thing we will never know about Bach's choir and orchestra is how good they were: he certainly bitched and moaned about them often enough. Given the limited rehearsal time, it's possible that the experience of weekly Bach premieres wasn't quite as thrilling as it sounds.