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Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

Julia Gooding, Ulla Munch, Deborah York, soprano; Susan Bickley, Magdalena Kozená, mezzosoprano; James Gilchrist, Mark Padmore (Evangelist), tenor; Peter Harvey (Jesus), Stephan Loges, bass
Gabrieli Players
Dir: Paul McCreesh
rec: April 2002, Roskilde Cathedral
Archiv - 474 200-2 (2 CDs; 80"16"/81'16")

Every year at least one new recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion is released. The question is: do we need a new recording every year? What do they offer that other recordings don't? With that very question starts the interview of Stephen Pettit with Paul McCreesh, printed in the booklet of this recording.
McCreesh underlines that his recording is different from all previous recordings in that it puts a theory about the performance of Bach's vocal works into practice. He refers to the view that Bach had only a limited number of singers at his disposal who were able to sing really complicated music. Therefore his St Matthew Passion should be performed with one voice per part. This theory - usually referred to as 'OVPP' - has been developed by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott after a period of intensive research, the results of which were published in a book under the title 'The Bach Choir'.
Although Paul McCreesh says that with his performance he doesn't just want to prove an academic theory, nevertheless it is good to have an illustration of the OVPP-theory, which potentially could turn the performance practice of Bach's music upside down.

Apart from the scoring with solo voices it is the choice of tempo which has upset many people. In particular the fast tempo of the opening chorus has caused strong controversy. This seems a little strange, since it is only a small part of the whole work. But in many ways it sets the tone for the whole recording, and the way the opening chorus is dealt with here, sums up the character of the performance as a whole pretty well, and - in my judgement - what is wrong with it.

For the opening chorus ("Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen"), McCreesh needs 6'06". In comparison Leonhardt, in his recording with the Tölzer Knabenchor and La Petite Bande, needs 8'29". But the main difference is not the tempo but the way the character of the chorus is realised. Leonhardt is able to create a strong dramatic tension by clear rhythmic accents and sensible dynamic differentation. In comparison McCreesh's performance is as flat as a pancake. There is no differentiation within the chorus, apart from the fact that the second half is louder than the first half. But there is no tension or drama here.
In the interview in the booklet, Stephen Pettit states: "Your opening chorus goes with quite an irreverent swing." The funny thing is that McCreesh's interpretation doesn't swing at all, and that Leonhardt, with his much slower tempo, realises a much stronger swing, since he stresses the important notes, in contrast to McCreesh. He states: "All Bach's music, fast or slow, has an almost visceral connection to the dance." That may be true, but then I would expect to hear that in McCreesh's recording. I don't, not in the opening chorus, not elsewhere. (Just compare his interpretation of the aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (65) with that by Leonhardt, and the difference is all too clear.)

The problem I have with the opening chorus is not that the tempo is fast, but that it is undramatic, bland and misses the point completely.
It reveals a lack of understanding of this particular piece, Bach's St Matthew Passion, its theological meaning and liturgical function and - in particular German - baroque music in general.

In the interview McCreesh continues: "Why should we require the first chorus to be slow and solemn, when it is above else celebratory? There's an almost ecstatic desire to share in the retelling of the Passion story."
This is why it should be solemn (which doesn't imply 'slow'). It is a so-called 'exordium', which announces what is going to happen and calls on the congregation to focus on the story of the Passion. The Passion of Christ is the heart of Lutheran theology, often characterised as 'theology of the Cross'. The Passion was part of the liturgy and aimed at making the congregation 'relive', as it were, Christ's Passion, and that way be reminded once again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death.
But Bach goes even further. To the madrigalian text he adds the chorale "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig." This chorale refers to the Passion as a task which is already fulfilled. But it also describes bluntly the horrors fulfilling that task required: "Am Stamm des Kreuzes geschlachtet" (slaughtered on the cross's stem) and "Wiewohl du warst verachtet" (however much you were despised). By adding this chorale Bach gives an overall picture of the whole story of the Passion in its horrible intensity. The chorale is also very blunt in mentioning the causes of all these terrible things: "All Sünd hast du getragen, sonst müßten wir verzagen" (All sin for our sake bearing, else would we die despairing). It brings the Passion very close to the congregation. Nobody can be a neutral bystander.
I wouldn't describe that as 'celebration', but rather as 'remembrance' or 'commemoration'. Bach's music makes the 'lamento' character of the opening chorus abundantly clear. And that 'lamento' isn't just about the Passion itself, but also about what causes it: human sinfulness.

The performance of the opening chorus demonstrates a number of other shortcomings of the recording as a whole.
Generally all notes are treated equally. There is no differentiation between the important and the less important notes, known as 'good' and 'bad' notes respectively. It is first and foremost the text which gives the clue as to which notes are 'good' and which are 'bad'.
The baroque principle of music as 'speech' is ignored. There is too much legato singing, a lack of clear phrasing and articulation on the basis of the text. There is no differentation whatsoever within the chorales, no stressing of particular words, too little variation in tempo and dynamics.
In particular the recitatives are suffering from this approach. The Evangelist is basically a reporter who tells a story to an audience. He should speak rather than sing. He should stress some syllables and words, just like a speaker does. Mark Padmore doesn't. But, probably in an attempt to underline the dramatic character of the events, he screams a lot. But if you scream all the time people won't pay attention anymore to what you have to say.

There is a general ignorance of the rhetorical aspects of this work and Bach's use of the Affekt. The performance of the arias and the accompanied recitatives which precede some of them is generally bland and flat, with little interpretation of the text.
This doesn't apply to the singers only. The instrumentalists should know what the texts are about as well. The text is decisive for the way the instrumental parts should be played. I haven't noticed a great deal of understanding from the players in this recording. Either they don't understand what they are dealing with - which I find hard to believe - or they just don't know what to do with it. A general blandness and lack of differentation is omnipresent. The players just play - but even instruments should speak and contribute to telling the story.

Two issues are remaining.
First: the interview with Paul McCreesh in the booklet. I can't say the tone of it is very sympathetic, to put it mildly. He too often seems to forget that the OVPP-concept is still a theory, and not a proven fact. And his dismissal of everyone who doesn't embrace that theory is a little simplistic.
I have already talked about the misunderstandings regarding Bach's music, demonstrated by McCreesh's remarks about the opening chorus.
But I am also surprised by the answer to the question regarding the use of boys' voices.
"If you want to emulate the scale of sound that Bach knew, shouldn't you be using boys for the top lines?"
"It I felt we could find boys who could sing half as well as today's best Baroque singers, I would certainly consider it. But since voices break so much earlier today there's probably no boy on earth who could make emotional sense of the music, even if they are up to the technical demands. I don't want to use boys because they can sing nicely, sound cute and look sweet."
This is said by someone who earlier in the interview states: "(...) if you play with old instruments, there's a not unreasonable supposition that you are taking historical evidence seriously; so it is a little surprising if you don't take the same attitude with the voices. There is certainly the possibility that the result can be half-cooked."
Absolutely correct, although I dare to say that this recording is less than half-cooked. But this answer is in complete contradiction to his dismissal of the use of boys' voices. He doesn't question the technical ability of boys to be able to sing Bach's music in the first place. He dismisses their emotional ability to do so. That is very strange, since there are examples of the opposite, as the recording by Leonhardt proves. If you listen to this recording there is no doubt that all singers are technically capable. But are they able to make "emotional sense of the music"? I don't think so. If you compare the performances of McCreesh's ladies and Leonhardt's boys in regard to the emotional interpretation of the soprano parts, Leonhardt's boys win hands down. (Listen to the recitative "Er hat uns allen wohlgetan" (48) and the aria "Aus Liebe" (49) - and decide for yourself who is expressing the text better, Deborah York or Christian Fliegner.)
There is nothing in the music of Bach which a good, musically intelligent and sensible boy singer can't grasp emotionally.
I haven't heard anything about McCreesh approaching Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, the conductor of the Tölzer Knabenchor and asking him if he had any boy in his choir who would be able to do the job. I am afraid laziness and prejudice is hidden here behind a curtain of artistic arguments.

The second issue is the vocal ensemble. With it we return to the main 'raison d'être' of this recording: the one-voice-per-part practice.
In a way performing the St Matthew Passion with a choir is much easier than with a small vocal ensemble. The members of a choir work together for a long time, and the conductor tries to develop a certain 'sound' which can survive personnel changes in its ranks. It is remarkable how a choir can keep a specific sound over a long period of time. The Collegium Vocale of Philippe Herreweghe is a good example.
A vocal ensemble is much more difficult. If one takes an existing vocal ensemble - a madrigal ensemble, for example - there is no guarantee that all members are up to the job of singing technically and emotionally demanding solo parts as those in the St Matthew Passion. On the other hand, bringing together a number of solo singers creates another problem: how to turn them into a vocal ensemble which is able to sing the tutti parts? For this recording McCreesh has chosen the second option. It doesn't work, which is clearly demonstrated in the opening chorus. The voices don't really blend, some use more vibrato than others and the balance within the 'ensemble' isn't ideal. You don't get an 'ensemble' by just bringing together a bunch of singers. The fact that they are all good individually doesn't necessarily make them good together.
A performance like this can only succeed when the vocal ensemble is just as good as choirs like the Tölzer Knabenchor or Philippe Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale. McCreesh's singers are far away from that standard. Of the vocal ensembles I know only Cantus Cölln could be able to give a really good OVPP-performance of Bach's vocal works.

This recording can't compete with the best already on the market. That has nothing to do with the fact that this recording has been made with one singer per part, although I suspect that some people who don't like the OVPP-approach or are just not convinced that the theory behind it is true, will use it to support their scepticism. But they are wrong. I believe that if Paul McCreesh had used a full choir of - say - 16 or more singers, the result would be just as dreadful.
This interpretation is a failure and shows a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding the very nature of Bach's music. It is a shame that this failure is presented with a self-confidence that isn't justified.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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