01 September 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Bach: The St Matthew Passion

Today, Karajan may not be widely seen as a specialist for Bach’s music but Karajan admired his oeuvre deeply and worked on it throughout his career.

This was by no means a matter of course. As an Austrian Catholic born in the city of Mozart and Biber he was not automatically familiar with protestant music. In his early Aachen years, in the seasons 1936/37 and 1937/38, Karajan performed the “St Matthews Passion” for the first time. He was able to engage the most distinguished Evangelist of his time, Karl Erb, who was immortalised in Thomas Mann’s novel ‘Doctor Faustus’. It was also the “St Matthew Passion” Karajan chose for his last concert as General Music Director in Aachen on 22 April 1942.

“Afterwards, he gathered everyone in the rehearsal room to give them heartfelt thanks for all they had contributed to the musical life of the city and for all they had done for him personally, and to wish them every success in the future.”
Richard Osborne

Karajan’s approach to the Thomaskantor’s work was also a milestone in his career after the war. One quite unusual project was a film by Ernst Marischka, later successful with the “Sissi” films. He used a narrator, excerpts from Bach’s oeuvre and famous paintings of a Christian persuasion for a 90-minute slide-show (in 1948). Karajan conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and met André von Mattoni, one of his closest associates in the decades to come.

The Viennese “Bach Fest” for the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death in June 1950 was Karajan’s chance to prove his abilities in the baroque repertoire. He trained the “Wiener Singverein” in 40 – 50(!) rehearsals for the “St Matthew Passion”, turning it into one of the choir’s finest achievements.

The soloists in this recorded concert were among the best available at the time: Irmgard Seefried, Kathleen Ferrier, Walther Ludwig, Paul Schöffler and Otto Edelmann. The result was a triumph for Karajan and a singular highlight in Vienna’s relationship with Bach.

It is remarkable that for the “St Matthew Passion” it was the Vienna Symphony that Karajan opted for no fewer than nine times between 1948 and 1959.

In 1972, he made his only studio recording of it with Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry.

The last performances in 1977 once again featured Peter Schreier as Evangelist and José van Dam as Jesus.

Gundula Janowitz ranked the experience of performing the ‘St Matthew Passion’ live in Salzburg at Eastertide under Karajan’s direction as one of the high points of her musical life.”
Richard Osborne

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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