Bach’s dramatic, declamatory work depicting the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ as told through the Gospel of Matthew (in the Martin Luther translation)  is now such a standard fixture in our musical canon that it is hard for us to imagine the scandal it once caused. After its première in the 1720s in Leipzig, the Passion was greeted with mixed responses. A report from the time claims that “When, in a respectable city this passion-music with twelve violins, numerous oboes, bassoons and many other instruments was performed for the first time many were astonished and did not know what they should make of this…. An elderly widow of noble birth said, ‘God protect the children’. It was like being in an opera spectacle.”

Today, recitatives and arias such as “Du lieber Heiland du… Buß und Reu”, “Wiewohl mein Herz… Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” and “Am Abend da es kühle war… Mache dich, mein Herze rein” are standard fare for any burgeoning music student and every practising Protestant will recognize the theme “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (O Sacred Head Now Wounded) which appears five times in the chorus throughout the three-and-a-half hour work.

The piece is traditionally performed during the week leading up to Easter, most commonly on Good Friday, but the Konzerthaus, in cooperation with Theater an der Wien is featuring it on the Saturday and Sunday evenings prior as part of the Osterklang Wien series. The work calls for a double choir (beautifully done, Arnold Schönberg Chor) as well as a separate soprano choir in the first part (Kinderchor der Opernschule der Wiener Staatsoper).

The choice of soloists was first rate, there was not a mediocre voice in the bunch. Werner Güra was a spectacular Evangelist, navigating tricky secco recitativo with great style, and lending beautiful, pale colours to lines like “Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich” (Nr. 38). Likewise Michael Volle, in the role of Christ, combined rich commanding lines, then delivered a heartbreaking “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?” Julia Kleiter (soprano 1 and 2) and Wiebke Lehmkuhl (alto 1 and 2) did their double duties brilliantly. Both women possess world class voices which they know how to use stylistically. I personally prefer a heavier soprano for “Blute nur”, and in fact often this aria is sung by one of the altos, but Kleiter’s “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” and in particular the very exposed “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” were gorgeous. Bernard Richter has a tenor voice that other tenors envy, round, brilliant and very well-placed, and Gerald Finley, the star of stars in the ensemble, did not disappoint.

The Wiener Symphoniker, with the addition of some lovely Baroque elements including a viola da gamba, organ, and cembalo under the baton of Philippe Jordan, played absolutely beautifully. There were long, romantic sweeping phrases, great attention to piano, some well-chosen pauses, and I particularly enjoyed some of the presentation decisions. Finley's aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” was presented visually as a duet between violin and bass with light orchestral support, as was Wiebke’s “Erbarme dich” which was an effective choice.

In fact, if the focus of this Passion was on beautiful singing and sensitive playing then this was a very successful evening in many ways. If, however, one feels a musical depiction of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ is more about drama and pain, then this fell a bit short. The tempi, especially in the chorus numbers and many instrumental interludes were often very slow which robbed the work of a lot of crunchy harmonic bits and confused the ductus. This confusion led to several numbers not hanging together well between soloist and orchestra, and occasionally even the feeling that the orchestra was straining at the reigns as bit to play, both dynamically and in terms of speed. I also really needed much more diction for this very declamation-based genre of musical story-telling. In particular, during piano passages, had we not had the text printed in full in the programmes nobody would have been able to understand a word, which is never adequate for Bach.

That being said, Bach is music for the soul, and when performed by excellent musicians, it cannot fail to be beautiful. Thanks to the considerable strengths of the many involved, there is really no better way to spend a weekend in Lent than lamenting through a Bach Passion in the Konzerthaus.