It was on Good Friday 1729 that Bach directed the first performance of his oratorio, St. Matthew Passion in St. Thomas’s Church, Leipzig. He had been organist and director of music at this Lutheran church for five years. The Reformation had brought the German translation of the Bible to the fore in the worship of the church, and music was an essential element in drawing the faithful into the meaning of the scriptures.
On Good Friday, the text is the account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ as set forth in St. Matthew’s Gospel. In 1729, Bach approached the task of setting it to music with the most ambitious scheme ever devised. The story is told in recitative form by a tenor representing the Evangelist. Other vocal soloists represent the main participants in the drama, with the voice of Jesus Himself always surrounded by a ‘halo’ of strings. Choruses illustrate and reflect on the action, with moments such as the crowd demanding Jesus’ crucifixion bringing forth some of Bach’ greatest choral writing. Chorales, based on familiar hymn tunes, allowed the faithful to participate in the drama. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion continues to rank as one of the supreme achievements of European music.
Irmgard Seefried (1919-1988) was one of the outstanding sopranos to emerge in central Europe at the end of World War 2. She made her operatic debut in Aachen in 1940 and began singing principal roles in 1942. The following year Seefried made her debut at the Vienna State Opera: she was to be a mainstay of the company until her retirement in 1976. She made guest appearances at Milan, London, and New York but was most at home in Vienna. Equally successful in Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss, Seefried was equally distinguished on the concert platform in oratorio and in Lieder recitals, most notably at the Salzburg Festival.
Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) was just reaching the pinnacle of her career when her life was cut short by cancer. Her outstanding contralto voice made an immediate and very personal impact on all those who heard her. Celebrated in oratorio, most notably Bach, Handel (Messiah) and Elgar (The Dream of Gerontius), she was taken up by the great conductor Bruno Walter, who accompanied her at a famous Edinburgh Festival recital and recorded Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss with her and the Vienna Philharmonic. She also collaborated with Benjamin Britten. This broadcast from the Vienna Musikverein places her alongside a roll-call of stars from the Vienna Opera.
Walther Ludwig (1902-1981) had already established himself as a stylish lyric tenor in Berlin, especially in Bach and Mozart, when he made his Vienna opera debut in 1947, becoming a popular figure in the company for decades. After his retirement, he returned to Berlin to teach at the Hochschule für Musik.
Otto Edelmann (1917-2003), born in Vienna, was one of the best-loved members of the Vienna State Opera which he joined in 1947 and where he remained to give 430 performances. His roles ranged from Mozart to Wagner and he appeared at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. It was the role of Baron Ochs in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier that he made particularly his own, with his native Viennese dialect and larger-than-life stage presence.
Paul Schoeffler (1897-1977) made his debut in Dresden in 1925, where he remained until 1938. Schoeffler then joined the Vienna State Opera, remaining a member of the Company until 1965. His international career flourished at Bayreuth, Salzburg, London and New York. Equally distinguished in bass-baritone roles in Mozart and Wagner, he also created roles in new operas by Richard Strauss and Gottfried von Einem. He settled in England in 1965.
Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was born in Salzburg on 5th April 1908. In 1934 he was appointed music director at Aachen and soon became one of the most important younger conductors in Germany. Four years later he joined the Berlin State Opera, where he worked until it was destroyed by bombing in 1944.
In 1946 the EMI producer Walter Legge signed Karajan to record with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and his newly formed Philharmonia Orchestra in London. In 1955 Karajan succeeded Furtwängler as director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and from 1957 until 1964 he was artistic director of the Vienna State Opera. He was also closely associated with the Salzburg Festival and initiated the Salzburg Easter Festival. Karajan made many significant recordings for EMI before joining Deutsche Grammophon, where he remained for the rest of his life. He became the most powerful figure on the European classical music scene, dominant in Berlin, Vienna, Milan and Salzburg, and the world’s top-selling conductor on record. Herbert von Karajan died on 16th July 1989 aged 81 at his home in Anif, near Salzburg. A square in Salzburg bears his name.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe