‘The St Matthew Passion is one of the most extraordinary human immersive experiences of all’ | Inside Bach's masterpiece, with Raphaël Pichon

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Raphaël Pichon reveals to Lindsay Kemp a studious and collaborative approach to this epic work

Recording session: French conductor Raphaël Pichon directs his vocal-and-instrumental period ensemble Pygmalion, which he founded in 2006 (photography: Raphaël Wertheimer)
Recording session: French conductor Raphaël Pichon directs his vocal-and-instrumental period ensemble Pygmalion, which he founded in 2006 (photography: Raphaël Wertheimer)

There is perhaps no Baroque score that looks more massive, more daunting, than Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A two-and-a-half-hour treatment of the story of Christ’s betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion set for two choirs and two orchestras and with a web of vocal solos and dialogues, and a reputation for being one of the most profound creations of Western art, it is surely not for the faint-hearted. Raphaël Pichon – a rare example of a French conductor happy to tackle Bach’s Passions – says his first reaction to it was ‘one of distance and fear. In France we still sometimes have this distance from Bach, like it’s something from outside our culture. But that’s beginning to change. For the last five years or so now I would say there has been a Passion every Easter in every important hall in France. But it’s quite new. I had a relationship with the St John Passion from an early age, and I’ve always loved being in front of polychoral music like Tallis’s Spem in alium or big works by Gabrieli or Striggio, but after I read through the Matthew properly I realised it was one of the most incredible experiences of human communion. It’s fashionable for modern technology to give you the feeling of being in the middle of something, but Bach invented something even stronger: the St Matthew Passion is one of the most extraordinary human immersive experiences of all.’

‘The question of editing and marking up the score is so important,’ says Pichon. ‘We need to create the right conditions to understand the music’


We are on Zoom, of course. Pichon has with him the 2012 Carus-Verlag Stuttgarter Bach-Ausgaben score he used to conduct the new Harmonia Mundi recording of the piece with his vocal-and-instrumental ensemble Pygmalion. Not owning a full score, I am enjoying an online facsimile of Bach’s fair-copy manuscript which dates from 1736, nine years after the work’s probable first performance. Both documents offer their own insights. ‘The manuscript is an amazingly beautiful score,’ says Pichon, ‘the most incredibly honest human testimony of a great craftsman. You can definitely feel the importance of the moment for Bach. He had worked a lot on it, for sure, and I think it was one of the key moments of his career. But it wasn’t just about his career. We should understand that for a composer like Bach the important thing was not to be famous or be the music director of this town or that city. The ultimate goal was to compose properly the three most important chapters of Christ’s life: Nativity, Passion, Resurrection. I think in this manuscript you can really sense the extra care he is giving it, especially in the way he picks out the words of the Gospel in red ink. That’s really touching and special.’

A Bach manuscript is a valuable opportunity for intimacy with a great creative mind, but while a violinist or a keyboard player, say, may be able to feel the thrill of actually performing from a facsimile, the closely packed staves, wispy note heads and faded ink of the St Matthew Passion autograph hardly make it a practical option for a conductor, especially when there are important decisions to be made. ‘The question of editing and marking up the score is so important,’ says Pichon. ‘We need to create the right conditions to understand the music. It’s as important as the disposition of the performers in the concert and can totally affect the way you perform the work.’


I ask if I can see what he has written in his modern score. ‘My first markings are on the contents list, just to get a full idea of the architecture of the piece,’ he says, holding up his copy to show me a grid of lines and brackets. ‘I like the idea of zooming in step by step from there, especially with Bach and especially with this piece, which I like to organise into different acts, different scenes. One of the most important things for a conductor is to understand the arc of the piece and the arc of every chapter, to see where we need to breathe and when we need to be straighter with the deeper rhythm of the score. These are the first steps.’

But that is not all. ‘My start will always be to read the score, but I also like to read everything I can about it – the context, the origins, what made it possible, what the reasons behind it were, who the composers were who wrote something like it before. And then, if a piece is not in my native language, I aim to translate it in my own way by reading different translations from different periods, reading everything I can about the origins of the text, and then making my own version and writing it into the score. Then I’ll dive into the music again and start writing in some sensations, intuitions, ideas of tempo and dynamics, question marks about things I don’t quite understand. After a while, the score is full of markings!’

Another glimpse of Pichon’s copy shows just what he means: as well as musical instructions, there are densely packed lines of text written into the margins and other blank spaces. What are they? ‘They’re starting points for discussion during rehearsals, projections of what I want to inspire in the musicians. They could be about the architecture, or about meaning, or they could be extracts from other parts of the Bible related to that particular moment. Or I might write more pragmatic information, such as how it would be nice to play a certain part on the oboe da caccia instead of the oboe d’amore, or about the registration of the continuo instruments – how we will accompany a particular passage. Sometimes I write key words that I want to share with the musicians – a feeling, a description of a situation, a position, an expression, a poetic idea. That way, rehearsing the piece can be an exchange, a discussion.’

It’s beginning to sound as if Pichon’s score may one day be a valuable document in itself, and certainly he likes to think that it will be around at least as long as he is conducting the piece, perhaps even after he has changed his mind about things in it. He also cherishes the idea that there is a Bachian parallel, if not in the score itself, at least in Bach’s copy of the Bible published in 1681-82 by the theologian Abraham Calov (and which features Calov’s commentary as well as that of Martin Luther), which the composer annotated heavily (most famously with the words, ‘Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present’). ‘I know there are many conductors who don’t like to write in their scores,’ he reflects, ‘but I’m happy with the idea that it’s something Bach did in another way. This Passion is my Calov Bible.’


Read the review of Pichon’s recording of the St Matthew Passion in the Reviews Database: St Matthew Passion

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Gramophone, never miss an issue – subscribe today

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