Bach's St Matthew PassionBach's St Matthew Passion

The Gramophone Choice

Christoph Prégardien ten Evangelist Matthias Goerne bar Christus Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann sops Bernarda Fink, Elisabeth von Magnus contrs Michael Schade, Markus Schäfer tens Dietrich Henschel, Oliver Widmer basses Vienna Boys’ Choir; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Teldec 2564 64347-2 (163' · DDD · T/t). Includes enhanced CD with full autograph score. Buy from Amazon

Harnoncourt waited over 30 years to return to the St Matthew Passion, which, but for his live Concertgebouw recording, he previously recorded in 1970 when he had completed only a handful of cantatas in Teldec’s defining series. Harnoncourt’s revisitation presents a unique statement, one that can’t fail to make an impression. Recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna, there’s a detectable flavour of southern European oratorio, ebulliently theatrical, immediate and free-breathing, and without the austerity of North German rhetoric. What’s recognisably perceived as ‘spiritual’ in the carefully coiffured renderings of Suzuki (BIS) and Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) has no place here. Harnoncourt’s religiosity isn’t imposed but stands rather in a lifetime of musical distillation. This is instantly obvious in the opening chorus, where bridal imagery (in the music’s secular, balletic lift) is juxtaposed with the physical imagery of what’s at stake (in the broad, enduring bow strokes). While Suzuki’s visceral chorale is more spine-tingling, the refinement here of ‘Sehet, Wohin?’ amid inexorable, paradoxically unquestioning direction, is masterful. 

Pacing Part 1 is no easy task, and many a tank has been emptied before reaching what the great Bach scholar Friederich Smend called ‘the central message of the work’ (encompasssing Nos 46-49). Harnoncourt neither dallies unduly with the chorales nor charges through them; they skilfully counterbalance the remarkably incandescent narrative of Prégardien’s Evangelist. The tenor shows a supreme attention to detail (even if his singing is sometimes effortful), and his dialogue with Matthias Goerne’s vital Christus is especially compelling. Harnoncourt gives ‘Blute nur’ a touch of characteristic melodrama, but none can doubt how Dorothea Röschmann and the orchestra, between them, project its expressive core.

The strikingly cultivated crowd scenes of the well-drilled, medium-sized Arnold Schoenberg Choir make a strong contrast with the relatively brazen chorus in Harnoncourt’s 1970 version. Unlike the specialists of the pioneering years, Harnoncourt hand-picks his soloists from the widest possible pool. Apart from the excellent Röschmann, Christine Schäfer impresses here far more than in her rather harried solo Bach disc (DG). More relaxed and controlled, she sings with acute coloration and stillness in ‘Aus Liebe’. With Bernarda Fink’s beguiling ‘Erbarme dich’ and Michael Schade’s resplendent ‘Geduld’, only Oliver Widmer (who sings ‘Gebt mir’) gives less than unalloyed pleasure. The pick of the crop is Dietrich Henschel, who sings with great warmth and penetration with a ‘Mache dich’ to stand alongside (if not to rival) Fischer-Dieskau for Karl Richter (Archiv). But with even these wonderful contributions, it still takes clarity of vision to graphically propel the drama yet also ponder it reverentially. Again, Harnoncourt leaves his mark with his unerring compassion at most of the critical points. 

Finally, mention should be made of Concentus Musicus, grainy and luminous in ensemble, the obbligato wind a far cry from the softer-edged and rounded tonal world of almost all other ‘period’ groups. In short, this is the most culturally alert reading in years and a truly original and illuminating experience.

 

Additional Recommendation

Anthony Rolfe Johnson ten Evangelist Andreas Schmidt bar Christus Barbara ­Bonney, Ann Monoyios sops Anne Sofie von Otter mez Michael Chance counterten Howard Crook ten Olaf Bär bar Cornelius Hauptmann bass London ­Oratory Junior Choir; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner 

Archiv 427 648-2AH3 (167' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon

What makes Gardiner’s St Matthew Passion stand out in the face of stiff competition is, more than anything, his vivid sense of theatre. Bach’s score is, after all, a sacred drama and Gardiner interprets this aspect of the work with lively and colourful conviction. That in itself isn’t sufficient to ensure a fine performance, but here we have a first-rate group of solo voices, immediately responsive choral groups and refined obbligato and orchestral playing. Anthony Rolfe Johnson declaims the Evangelist’s role with clarity, authority and the subtle inflexion of an accomplished story-teller. Ann Monoyios, Howard Crook and Olaf Bär also make strong contributions but it’s Michael Chance’s ‘Erbarme dich’, tenderly accompanied by the violin obbligato, which sets the seal of distinction on the performance. Singing and playing of this calibre deserve to win many friends and Gardiner’s deeply felt account of Bach’s great Passion does the music considerable justice. Clear recorded sound.

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