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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

Isabel Schicketanz, soprano; Marie Henriette Reinhold, contralto; Patrick Grahl (Evangelist), Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenor; Peter Harvey (Jesus), Kresimir Strazanac, bass
Gaechinger Cantorey
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Nov 2020, Ludwigsburg, Forum am Schlosspark
Accentus Music - ACC30535 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (2.36'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

When early in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic started to hold the world in its grip, it was immediately clear that this was going to have severe consequences at the music scene. Many concerts were cancelled, rehearsals became hardly possible, and the longer the pandemic lastet, the more the future of entire ensembles and concert organizations was at stake. Some artists, most of them without employment, had to look for a different way of earning money. Some reviewers expected that soon they would run out of discs to review. So far I have not seen that happening. The bulk of discs waiting for being reviewed is as large as ever. It is admirable and a token of their creativity how many performers and ensembles have managed to deal with the circumstances.

The recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion reviewed here is a good example. If there is any work that it hard to perform and record under the circumstances of a pandemic, which requires all sorts of protective measures, it is the St Matthew Passion. Hans-Christoph Rademann, in his personal notes in the booklet, explains how they had to deal with the situation. "A recording where the musicians are placed apart from each other according to the respective regulations is enormously difficult. It challenges every musician since they have to act more like soloists and yet be part of a whole. The way the creative process works is different from a normal concert setting, demanding the highest level of concentration and listening from everyone. That said, there was an absolute commitment and enthusiasm in the room because all the performers were profoundly grateful to come together to pursue their passion. This recording will, therefore, be remembered as a moment of happiness in a very extraordinary time". One can only admire the effort of all participants to make this production possible. Considering the circumstances, the result is highly respectable, even though the interpretation may not fulfill the expectations.

Let me first focus on the bare facts.

One may wonder how this recording could be released on just two discs. It is not that the tempi are unusually fast. In most recordings, the second part is allocated to two different discs. Here, the first six sections of the second part follow the end of the first part, and are allocated to the first disc. The reason may have been to save costs. I did not experience this as particularly inconvenient. It is just that one has to get to used to it.

The choral parts - choruses, turbae, chorales - are performed by a choir of two times thirteen singers. In the first part, three adult sopranos sing the soprano in ripieno part. There are no boys included, which seems right to me, as this would create a contrast Bach did not intend. The members of the choir also take care of the smaller solo parts. The soloists in the leading roles do not participate in the performance of the tutti sections. The split into two choirs is ignored in the solo department: the soloists sing the arias in both choirs. Each of the two orchestras comprise five violins, two violas, cello and double bass, plus the winds and the basso continuo. The latter omits a plucked instrument - again, for good reasons - as well as a harpsichord, which is probably debatable. The only keyboard instruments are two small organs. I do not know whether Rademann would have preferred a larger organ, but under the circumstances that may not have been possible anyway.

The Evangelist and Jesus are the main characters in Bach's Passions. With Patrick Grahl Rademann has made a good choice for the former role. He acts as a real storyteller and is not afraid to show the emotions of a committed observer now and then. The tempi are mostly right, and overall he treats the rhythm with enough freedom. The role of Jesus is taken by Peter Harvey, who is not exactly a favourite of mine, as I find his voice rather bland. Obviously, that is largely a matter of taste. At first I noticed a lack of commitment, but in the course of time he is becoming more engaged.

All the soloists have nice and pleasant voices. In their interpretation and from a stylistic angle not all of them are convincing. I have heard Isabel Schicketanz in various recordings, and I appreciated her singing. Unfortunately, here a not very big, but clearly audible vibrato has crept in, which I find especially disturbing in 'Aus Liebe'. That is especially regrettable as her performance is quite expressive. The low notes are also a bit weak. I can't remember having heard Marie Henriette Reinhold before, and I like her voice. A female alto in Bach's St Matthew Passion seems to be the exception these days, and one probably needs to get used to it. 'Erbarme dich' is sung nicely, but the performance is once again damaged by vibrato. The balance between soprano and contralto in 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' is not perfect, but that could well be due to the circumstances of the recording. Benedikt Kristjánsson is an excellent singer, whose voice is perfectly suited for baroque music. He sings his arias very well, but is a bit neutral; he does not quite fulfill my expectations. I am pleasantly surprised by Kresimir Strazanac. I have heard him several times before and I was mostly not impressed. Here he is doing very well; his interpretation of the bass arias is sensitive and differentiated.

The choruses are a little too heavy and occasionally lack profile and bite. The opening chorus is well done, but the closing chorus does not come off that well. In the chorales the text should have been given more attention. It is a mystery to me why the chorale 'Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden' is sung without instrumental accompaniment. The tempo is also extremely slow, and for that I can't find a good reason either. The orchestra is playing very well and the obbligato parts receive fine performances.

Apart from the vibrato of Isabel Schicketanz and Marie Henriette Reinhold, I can't find an overriding reason to advise against this recording. Unfortunately, I can't find a reason to recommend it either. Overall, this performance is blandish and short on profile. It is respectable, but in the light of the stiff competition, that is just not enough.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Patrick Grahl
Peter Harvey
Benedikt Kristjánsson
Marie Henriette Reinhold
Kresimir Strazanac
Gaechinger Cantorey

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