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

La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken

rec: April 5 - 9, 2009, Leuven, Predikherenkerk
Challenge Classics - CC72357 (3 CDs) (© 2010) (2.37'40")

Gerline Sämann [I], Marie Kuijken [II], soprano; Petra Noskaiová [I], Patrizia Hardt [II], contralto; Christoph Genz [I] (Evangelist), Bernhard Hunziker [II], tenor; Jan Vander Crabben [I] (Jesus), Marcus Niedermeyr [II], bass; Emilie De Voght (soprano in ripieno, Ancilla I & II, Uxor Pilati), soprano; Nicolas Achten (Judas, Pontifex [Kaiphas], Pontifex I), Olivier Berten (Petrus, Pilatus, Pontifex II), bass
Marc Hantaï [I], Yifen Chen [I], Georges Barthel [II], Sien Huybrechts [II], transverse flute; Patrick Beaugiraud [I], Vinciane Baudhuin [I], Emiliano Rodolfi [II], Rodrigo Gutierrez [II], oboe, oboe d'amore, oboe da caccia; Sigiswald Kuijken [I], Katharina Wulf [I], Sara Kuijken [II], Makoto Akatsu [II], violin I; Jin Kim [I], Annelies Decock [I], Giulio D'Alessio [II], Masanobu Tokura [II], violin II; Marleen Thiers [I], Mika Akiha [II], viola; Sigiswald Kuijken [I], viola da gamba; Marian Minnen [I], Ronan Kernoa [II], basse de violon; Ewald Demeyere [I], Benjamin Alard [II], organ

Every year new recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion are released. Most recordings are not fundamentally different from what is already on the market. But in the first decade of the 21st century we have seen a new angle in the approach of Bach's masterpiece. According to the musicologists and performers Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott Bach usually performed his sacred music with one voice per part. This means that in the St Matthew Passion just eight voices are needed, plus a single voice for the soprano in ripieno in Part 1.

So far this approach has been followed in several recordings of cantatas, but not so often in the Passions. In 2003 a recording with one voice per part was released by Archiv, with the Gabrieli Consort and Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. In 2008 a second recording appeared, with the Dunedin Consort, directed by the renowned Bach scholar John Butt. Both interpretations were rather disappointing, as I have explained in my reviews.

Sigiswald Kuijken has - after being rather sceptical about the view of Rifkin and Parrott - come to the conclusion that this approach is historically correct, and this has led to a project with cantatas, which are strictly performed with one singer per part. In 2008 he recorded the Mass in b minor, and in 2009 this was followed by the St Matthew Passion. There are some differences in the scoring of these three recordings. Whereas McCreesh used nine singers in total, both Butt and Kuijken have two additional singers for some minor roles: Petrus, Pilatus, Judas, Pontifex (Caiphas) as well as Pontifex I and II. In Kuijken's recording the soprano who sings the soprano in ripieno also takes the roles of Uxor Pilati (the wife of Pontius Pilate) and Ancilla I and II.

Historical considerations apart, the main merit of a scoring like this is the transparency. The various parts, and in the tutti sections the text, can be followed more easily than in a performance with a choir. On the other hand, the dramatic character of the turbae is harder to realise with such a small number of singers. A special challenge is to bring together a team of singers who are not only able to sing the solo parts but also to act as a vocal ensemble in the tutti. McCreesh failed in the latter, Butt in the former aspect.

In comparison Sigiswald Kuijken is doing much better. One reason is probably that a number of singers in this recording have participated in his recordings of Bach's cantatas, and therefore are used to sing together. Their performances of the solo parts are much better than in John Butt's recording, but an unqualified success they are not.

Let's start with Christoph Genz . He has a wonderful voice and an excellent diction. As German is his native tongue his pronunciation is flawless. But I am not impressed by his interpretation of the role of the Evangelist. His upper register is clear and strong, but in comparison his low register is rather weak. More serious is that he doesn't perform his part in a truly declamatory style. His performance is rhythmically too strict; he doesn't really tell the story. He also sounds surprisingly uninvolved. Even in the passage where Jesus is arrested, which leads to the duet 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' and the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner' there is no hint of real involvement: he acts as a bystander, giving a factual account of what happens. But the Evangelist in the gospel according to St Matthew is anything like that: his part is full of emotion, and that hardly comes off in Christoph Genz' performance.

Jan Van der Crabben doesn't have a voice which I find very attractive. His German pronunciation isn't quite idiomatic, and it is particularly his guttural "r" which puts me off. His interpretation of the role of Jesus is reasonably good, but not really emotionally involving. He just doesn't explore the emotional depth of this part. In comparison he is much better in his arias. The aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' is beautifully sung, and the recitative and aria 'Am Abend, da es kühle war - Mache dich, mein Herze rein' are really moving. These are among the highlights of this recording.

It is in regard to the arias that I have most mixed feelings about this interpretation. Gerlinde Sämann is definitely one of the best, and in particular the aria 'Aus Liebe' and the preceding recitative 'Er hat uns allen wohlgetan' are given wonderful performances. Marie Kuijken, in contrast, is rather bland in 'Blute nur'.
Problematic is Petra Noskaiová: I find her voice not very characteristic and generally rather bland. That shows in 'Buß und Reu' which is rather superficial, and the recitative 'Ach Golgatha' and the aria 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' are not very interesting either. Surprisingly 'Erbarme dich' is much better. I would have preferred Patrizia Hardt in the alto part of the first choir, since her performance of the recitative 'Erbarm es Gott' and the aria 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen' is very good. Her voice has more character and is more colourful than Petra Noskaiová's.
'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' is sung by Christoph Genz, and here again I find him too neutral and emotionally uninvolved. Bernhard Hinziker does a good deal better in 'Mein Jesus schweigt' and 'Geduld!', although he could have made more of single words in the text. Marcus Niedermeyr is alright in 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen'.

The balance in such a small ensemble should be good. Mostly it is, but in some choruses the sopranos - and in particular Gerlinde Sämann - tend to dominate. In the opening chorus and in the closing chorus of the first part the soprano in ripieno is not clearly audible. I think a performance with two voices would have give a better result. The small roles are generally well performed, although the German pronunciation leaves something to be desired.

I have mentioned the problem of making sure the turbae are dramatic enough. In this recording some are, but others are too feeble. But this is probably also the result of the overall approach of Sigiswald Kuijken, which is more intimate than dramatic. I think that is a legitimate approach, although I generally perfer a more dramatic interpretation. But a more intimate performance doesn't imply a lack of dynamic contrasts, and that is what I find disappointing in this recording. That has nothing to do with the number of players or singers involved. Gustav Leonhardt, in his recording with - again - La Petite Bande is much more convincing in this respect. He also gives more attention to the rhythmic pulse, and goes for a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes. The opening chorus, although slower, is much more dance-like and swinging, and in general has a stronger emotional impact than in this recording.

To sum up, of all presently available recordings of Bach's St Matthew Passion with one voice per part this is definitely the best. But for a really convincing interpretation of this kind we have to wait a little further.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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