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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - E
P is for 'Passion'

Extracts from interviews with Mark Elder, Rowan Williams, Fiona Shaw and Katie Mitchell, which will be broadcast on Radio 3 during 'A Bach Christmas'.

'If I was only allowed to have one piece of Bach's and the desert island had really good hi-fi equipment it would be the St Matthew Passion - because of the wealth of contrast, drama and reflection and the great music that runs through this enormous work.'
Mark Elder


'Drama is a centrally important part of Bach's music, even the shortest, smallest pieces have a powerfully dramatic quality and the Matthew Passion even more than the John Passion works with the plurality of voices arguing, pleading, occasionally coming together sometimes in real tension and real awkwardness and dissonance with each other.

One of the most significant aspects of the drama of this Passion is of course what it does to our perception of ourselves. The Matthew Passion is not written as a spectator sport, it's an event in which listeners are supposed to be involved. In early liturgical performaces the congregation would have joined in the chorales but even elsewhere there's a sense in which people speak for you in the Passions. Constantly the narrative is interrupted with those poetic meditations that some modern people find so difficult, where we have to identify ourselves with characters in the story, we have to take on our responsibility.'
Rowan Williams


'I got into the St. John Passion relatively recently having previously only rather reluctantly listened to Bach. Deborah Warner directed it at the ENO, and because she had directed me, I went to see it. The theatricality of the event sold me to it - it's a story that has long since bypassed its religious origins. If I was encouraging anyone to listen to it, I would say just listen without reading the story, because from the first group chorus, it feels like people singing on our behalf. The reason it works so well is that we can endow it with whatever meanings we want, because it is just the progress of the human soul to infinity through this blip called consciousness. It doesn't matter if there is redemption through Christ, there is redemption in the music itself, because while they sing, we are singing with them. The human potential is entirely explored, and one gets an enormous high - to me Bach is drugs.'
Fiona Shaw


'I'm about to stage the St. Matthew Passion but it's proving difficult working out how to provide a theatrical setting for it which still has the precision, tenderness and depth of the music. One feels frightened approaching a piece of that profundity and trying to make it into more of an operatic piece without tampering with it. Formally, it is immaculately structured with its chorales and arias but it's impossible to try and explain it emotionally. I hear it every Easter, and I just cry - in a perverse way, it is my yearly catharsis.'
Katie Mitchell

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