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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Matthew Passion & St Mark Passion

[I] St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Hannah Morrison, soprano; Sophie Harmsen, contralto; Tilman Lichdi, tenor; Peter Harvey, Christian Immler (Jesus), bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Barockorchester Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius
rec: March 10 - 14, 2015, Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.286 (3 CDs) (© 2016) (2.44'28")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

[II] St Mark Passion (BWV 247)
Ulrike Eidinger, soprano; Ulrich Weller, alto; Samir Bouadjadja, tenor; Lars Eidinger, speaker
Ensemble Wunderkammer
Dir: Peter Uehling
rec: April 1 - 4, 2015, Berlin, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Kirche
Coviello Classics - COV 91605 (© 2016) (65'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

The vocal line-up in Bach's sacred works is one of the most controversial issues of historical performance practice. Some Bach scholars believe that Bach in most cases performed his cantatas and oratorios with one voice per part. Only in some cases he added one extra voice to every part, known as ripienists. Most performers are convinced that there is no fundamental difference between 'soloists' and ripienists in Bach's music - or in any music of the 17th and early 18th centuries, for that matter. But the view that there is no room for a 'choir' in Bach's music is certainly not universally embraced. If we look at recordings of Bach's vocal works which have been released in recent years one has to conclude that the majority of performers still thinks one could - or should - use a choir, albeit a rather small one. Philippe Herreweghe, Ton Koopman and Masaaki Suzuki are some of the most prominent examples.

Some advocates of the 'one-voice-per-part' approach once did also perform Bach with a choir, but changed their minds after having studied the results of research into this matter, for instance the comprehensive book The Essential Bach Choir by Andrew Parrott which is partly based on the research of Joshua Rifkin who was the first to perform Bach's vocal works with solo voices, for instance the Mass in B minor. It is remarkable that Frieder Bernius, the conductor of the world-famous Kammerchor Stuttgart, followed the path in the opposite direction. In his 'Personal reflections on this recording' in the booklet to his recording of the St Matthew Passion he writes: "At the beginning of my awakened interest in the St Matthew Passion in 1987, I hit upon the radical idea of performing the choral parts with just one voice to a part - the greatest possible contrast with the hitherto customary large choral forces. From this interesting experience I have a memory of hearing the transverse flutes in the opening chorus particularly well. On the other hand it resulted in a lack of potential dynamic contrasts - as if one only ever played Bach's organ works on the 8 foot and 4 foot registers ...". When he became acquainted with the often quoted document known as the Entwurff he became convinced that Bach's vocal works need to be performed with a choir. It is a bit disappointing that Bernius doesn't show any awareness that the interpretation of this document is anything but unanimous.

In this recording the Kammerchor Stuttgart is divided into two groups of 16 voices each. There is no mention of the line-up of the soprano in ripieno part in the opening and closing choruses of Part 1. I assume that members of the choir - of both groups? - take care of this part. Bernius rightly decided not to use boys' voices here. That would have created a contrast between this part and the Chorus I and Chorus II parts which Bach did not intend. The disadvantage is that the chorale is not that clearly audible. It is a general observation that - as good as the choral sound is - the transparency could have been better. Especially the opening chorus is a shade too dense. Here I had preferred a somewhat faster tempo and a sharper articulation. The turbae are excellent; they are dramatic when needed. The chorales - often a weak spot in recordings of German sacred music - are also very good.

With Tilman Lichdi Bernius has an pretty good interpreter of the part of the Evangelist at his disposal. He shows the right amount of involvement; his diction is excellent which makes the text always clearly understandable. However, the tempi are generally a bit too slow and there is not enough rhythmic freedom. He also sings the tenor arias; Geduld! is particularly well done. Christian Immler has the authority the part of Jesus requires, but his clearly notable vibrato is disappointing; it really damages his contributions. In this regard Peter Harvey makes a better impression, although he is not free of vibrato either. But he sings his arias pretty well. The soprano arias are among the best this recording has to offer. Hannah Morrison has a clear and warm voice which is exactly right for this part. 'Aus Liebe' is just wonderful. Sophie Harmsen is most convincing in the dramatic recitatives, such es 'Erbarm es Gott'. The arias are alright, but are marred by her vibrato. 'Buss und Reu' doesn't have enough depth, but 'Erbarme dich' is pretty good.

All in all I have mixed feeelings about this recording. The quality of all participants is beyond any doubt. Choir and orchestra are first rate. But there are some serious minuses which withhold me from rating this recording among the upper echelon of performances in the catalogue.

According to the obituary (Nekrolog) which was included in Lorenz Mizler's Musicalische Bibliothek in 1754 Bach composed "five Passions, of which one is for double chorus". The latter certainly refers to the St Matthew Passion. Only two other Passions are known: the extant St John Passion and the St Mark Passion of which only the text has survived. Several attempts have been made to reconstruct the latter Passion in order to enable it being performed, giving at least some impression of what it may have sounded like. It is generally assumed that Bach reused material he had written previously.

The most frequently-used reconstruction is that by Dieter Hellmann of 1964 which was later revised by Andreas Glöckner (Carus, 2001). In this version the aria 'Angenehmes Mordgeschrei' is omitted. The British musicologist Simon Heighes has suggested a solution which was adopted by Roy Goodman in his recording (Musica Oscura, 1996; later reissued by Brilliant Classics). In the new recording which was released by Coviello Classics, this aria is also omitted. Therefore I assume that the Hellmann/Glöckner version is used here; the booklet doesn't give any information about this issue.

The main problem of any reconstruction is the text of the Gospel, for which Bach always used the form of the recitative. Nothing of this has been preserved. This problem has been 'solved' in various ways. Some recordings turn to the St Mark Passion attributed to Reinhard Keiser, other performers prefer to make their own recitatives (Ton Koopman) as does the musicologist Alexander Grychtolik who partly makes use of recitatives from the St Matthew Passion. Others have opted for a more radical approach: they use music of a different style (Volker Bräutigam) or engage an actor to read the text of the Gospel. In the recording of Michael Alexander Willens Dominique Horwitz reads the text, in the present recording this task is given to Lars Eidinger.

There is one not insignificant difference. In this new recording the reading is accompanied by improvisations on cello or viola da gamba. In his liner-notes the conductor, Peter Uehling, states: "[The] conductor of such a performance [as this one] is faced with a mundane problem: in most cases, the readings are followed by chorales, and the choir needs its opening notes - are these to be provided each time by the harpsichord, thereby interrupting the story's flow? I found this prospect displeasing. I wanted something to resound during the reading, a music that kept the flow going, gave the choristers their notes, but would not inhibit the narrator. (...) I sought a kind of predecessor of music, mostly long held notes and chords, simple movements and rhythms." I could imagine the interruptions being a problem in a live performance, but this is a studio recording; the intonation by a keyboard instrument can simply be cut. I find the result very unsatisfying and mostly rather disturbing as it made it much harder to listen to the text. For me this is a major point of criticism.

It would probably not be decisive if the performance had been better. But that part of this production doesn't satisfy me either. The opening chorus is a bit too fast and too undifferentiated; as a result it is a little superficial. The same goes for some of the arias; the music doesn't really breathe. Overall the performances of the arias are not very expressive. Ulrike Eidinger's singing is marred by a slight vibrato which is not nice to hear. In the chorales the text receives too little attention; there is a lack of dynamic accents and the treatment of the fermatas is rather inconsistent.

Unfortunately Michael Alexander Willens's recording is not substantially better. It seems to me that this concept is a valuable alternative to those performances which fill the empty spaces with different music, but so far I haven't heard a satisfying recording of this approach.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Peter Harvey
Christian Immler
Tilman Lichdi
Hannah Morrison
Ulrich Weller
Ensemble Wunderkammer
Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart

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