Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions, among the greatest of choral-orchestral masterpieces, represent the finest examples of the genre of oratorio-passion, the fusion of High Baroque musical style with German Lutheranism. Where the St Matthew contains a wealth of sublimely reflective solo writing, the St John is more concise and dramatically focused, particularly in the highly charged sequence of trial scenes. The biblical accounts of Christ’s arrest, trial and execution have, since the beginning of the Christian era, been read in church in Holy Week, and these recitations evolved over centuries into a highly sophisticated musical and religious art form.
The Evangelist is represented by a tenor, Christ by a bass, and a further quartet of soloists both reflect upon the drama and take other parts, notably that of Pontius Pilate. The choir represents the mob and various other groups, and sing a series of chorales and the great opening and closing choruses.
Bach’s care in shaping musical phrase and expression to meaning and detail of word and text was often lost in earlier translations. Recently, a masterly new English version by the legendary tenor Neil Jenkins has become available which we use in this performance, in which he himself sings the role of the Evangelist.