BACH St Matthew Passion – Harnoncourt
Harnoncourt has waited over 30 years to return with his Concentus Musicus Wien to the ‘Great Passion’, which, but for his live Concertgebouw recording (Teldec, 10/86 – nla), he last recorded in 1970 when he had completed only a handful of cantatas in Teldec’s defining series. This is another major recording event – as was the pioneering last one – shining like a beacon in a fairly uniform era of recorded vocal Bach. Of recent ‘period’ performances which have been lastingly memorable and/or profoundly distinctive, I would pick out Masaaki Suzuki’s deeply felt, if over-manicured, account of 1998 and Jos van Veldhoven with the Netherlands Bach Society, which is strikingly natural and fluid in delivery. Yet there is always plenty of room in the catalogue for a vision which seeks to define new levels of human understanding for Bach’s most breathtaking accomplishment, and in so doing ensures that the shape and quality of the performance is instantly conjurable in the mind’s ear.
Harnoncourt’s re-visitation presents a unique statement, one which cannot fail to make an impression. Recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna, one can detect the flavour of southern European oratorio, ebulliently theatrical, immediate and free-breathing, and without the austerity of North German rhetoric. What is recognisably perceived as ‘spiritual’ in the carefully coiffured renderings of Suzuki and Herreweghe has no place here. Harnoncourt’s religiosity is not 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 is at stake (in the broad, enduring bow strokes). Whilst Suzuki’s visceral chorale is more spine-tingling, the refinement here of ‘Sehet, Wohin?’ amidst 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 Christoph Pregardien’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. At such moments, a large liturgical space gives the work a dramatic energy which is matched in the sharply etched arias, each carefully withdrawn from the marketplace of the action to stand on its own merits. Harnoncourt gives ‘Blute nur’ a touch of characteristic melodrama, but none can doubt how Dorothea Roschmann and the orchestra, between them, project its expressive core.
The well-drilled, medium-sized Arnold Schoenberg Choir’s strikingly cultivated crowd scenes make a strong contrast with the relatively brazen chorus in Harnoncourt’s 1970 version. ‘Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’ is surprisingly but affectingly understated, yet one might wish for more incision (in No 60, for example) and dynamic contrast elsewhere without the slick physicality of the Monteverdi Choir. Unlike the specialists of the pioneering years, Harnoncourt hand-picks his soloists from the widest possible pool. Apart from the excellent Roschmann, Christine Schafer impresses here far more than in her rather harried solo Bach disc over a year ago (DG, 1/00). 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’) gave me 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. 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. ‘O Schmerz’ is dynamic in the juxtaposition of the panicking Zion and the unfazed faithful. The austerity is palpable where Christ gives up the ghost. From that point on, we must return to Richter’s 1958 recording for the benchmark. Harnoncourt projects a more resigned and objective set of emotional ‘tableaux’ compared to Richter’s long-breathed and ethereal ritual in the final cadence. Given the way Bach builds the tension at the mid-point from ‘O Mensch bewein’, there is a degree of anti-climax as Harnoncourt (or his producer) sacrifices momentum by creating large gaps between sections. Are these really intended?
Finally, one should mention 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 (though some occasional brittle intonation is slightly disorienting). In short, this is the most culturally alert reading in years. A truly original and illuminating experience (not least, the bonus CD-Rom of the autograph score) blemished only by the shoddy editing of ‘silence’ between numbers in the last disc.