|Philippe Sly mock conducts the Dallas Symphony (left)|
When J. S. Bach came to write his St. Matthew Passion in the 1720s, the passion, as a musical form, had grown to allow orchestra, choirs, and non-scriptural choruses and arias. But even by the standard of the Baroque passion, the Passion According to St. Matthew is exceptional for its musical richness and its grand scope.
Musically, the score is of imposing length, and calls for double orchestra and double choir—three choirs, at one point. The musical textures range from complex counterpoint to simple hymns. Dramatically, the point of view shifts regularly, from the narrative of the Evangelist, to the actual words of Jesus and his disciples, to reflections that speak for the individual believer. But in Bach's hands, the effect that the Passion gives is not one of a brilliant collage, but a single, sustained, somber meditation—appropriate for a work that was first performed as part of a church service.
Philippe Sly sings Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"
Scholars believe the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion may have been in 1727. It was certainly performed on Good Friday of 1729, and perhaps at several other Good Friday services during Bach's life. It then dropped from public view until 1829, when it was triumphantly revived by Felix Mendelssohn, crystallizing a revival of interest in Bach that grew throughout the 19th century and still continues.
The text of the passion was created by the German writer Christian Henrici, who wrote under the pen name of Picander. Like Bach, he lived in Leipzig, and it is believed that he and Bach worked closely together on the text.
There are three strands in the text: the actual text from the book of Matthew; Picander's own poetry; and the pre-existing hymns, or chorales, which Bach incorporates into the score, which would have been immediately recognizable by his first hearers.
Sly can next be heard as Panthée in Berlioz's epic Les Troyens with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg from April 15-17. He'll be joined by another all-star cast featuring Joyce DiDonato as Didon, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre and a barihunk quartet of Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe, Jérôme Varnier, Nicolas Courjal as Narbal and Sly.