The perfect music for Good Friday: some favorite interpretations of Bach's "Erbarme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion

You might assume, since I’m talking about Good Friday, that I’m Christian, and that I’m here to talk about my faith. Actually, I’m not Christian, but I also believe that Easter is not irrelevant. Here’s another non-Christian writing about why Easter matters.

I’ve found it impossible to escape the fact that one of my favorite music composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, was not only Christian, but clearly imbued his music in some way or other with his deep faith. Two years ago, while listening to the opening chorus of his St. Matthew Passion, which was first performed on Good Friday in 1727, I also saw a thoughtful article by a Muslim, “Can non-Christians appreciate Bach’s St. Matthew Passion”. I’m not here to add to that debate, but to share one of the most moving pieces in the entire history of Western music, the aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. I hope you will check it out, whether you are Christian or not.

Erbarme dich

The aria features a prominent violin solo part as well as a sung alto solo part. It represents the disciple Peter’s anguished and lonely weeping (“Have mercy, my Lord”) after he has three times denied knowing Jesus, guilty of the most shameful betrayal. The way Bach depicts Peter’s emotional state through music is astounding and gripping. You just have to hear it for yourself.

Sophie Gent, Damien Guillon

One performance I like features Sophie Gent on violin and Damien Guillon as countertenor. It is a very meditative, pure-sounding performance:

Unknown violinist, Andreas Scholl

However, I do prefer an edgier performance, and here is one that is more urgent and dramatic (audio only, no video of the performance) by Andreas Scholl as countertenor. Scholl really impresses here:

You can actually follow along in the score by a synchronized video score here.

Fredrik From, Anne Sofie von Otter

An even more urgent performance that might be my favorite is by Fredrik From on violin, Anne Sofie von Otter as mezzo-soprano. I have to confess that I feel that the tempo is a bit fast, but that does, in conjunction with the impeccable articulation and ensemble unity of purpose and style, give a driving force to Peter’s anguish. For me, this is the most expressive of the performances I’m listing here.

A few notes on this video:

Unknown violinist, Nathalie Stutzmann

On the topic of visually expressive performances, here is one of Nathalie Stutzmann as contralto and also as conductor. Both she and the violinist are totally into the music, holding nothing back physically as they express it. A rather unusual setting and view, but very powerful:

Frederick Chiu on piano

The pianist Frederick created his own transcription for piano of the aria. His performance is rather restrained for my taste, but it’s something different:


I’ve shared a few interesting performances of Bach’s aria “Erbarme dich” from his St. Matthew Passion. There are many other performances out there, of course.

Which of the performances I linked to are your favorite, and why? Or which ones I did not link to do you prefer, and why? And do you feel you need to be a Christian to appreciate and enjoy this kind of sacred music?

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