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Johann Sebastian BACH: St Matthew Passion (BWV 244 & 244b)

[I] St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Joanne Lunn, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, contralto; Charles Daniels, tenor (Evangelist, arias); Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Pilatus, arias), Peter Harvey (Jesus), bass
Knabenkantorei Basel; Choir & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz

rec: 2012, [n.p.]
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B006 (3 CDs) (© 2014) (2.40'30")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[soli] Mirjam Berli (Ancilla I), Susanne Frei (Ancilla II), Guro Hjemli (Uxor Pilati), soprano; Jan Börner (Testis I), alto; Walter Siegel (Testis II), tenor; Chaspar Mani (Pontifex I), Valentin Parli (Pontifex II), Philippe Rayot (Judas), Manuel Walser (Petrus), bass

[II] St Matthew Passion (version 1727) (BWV 244b)
Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Sarah Connolly, contralto; James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Thomas Hobbs (arias), tenor; Christopher Maltman (arias), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Matthew Rose (Jesus), bass
Academy of Ancient Music; Choir of the AAM
Dir: Richard Egarr
rec: April 20 - 27, 2014, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill
AAM Records - AAM004 (3 CDs) (© 2015) (2.24'40")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Philippa Hyde (Ancilla I, Uxor Pilati), Elizabeth Drury (Ancilla II), soprano; Christopher Field (Testis I), alto; Stuart Jackson (Testis II), tenor; Richard Bannan (Pontifex), Richard Latham (Pontifex I), Philip Tebb (Judas, Pontifex II), bass

"Oh no, not again". That is the title of Richard Egarr's notes to his recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion. I understand what he means and share his feelings. Over the years I have heard many performances live, in radio broadcasts and on disc. One wonders whether the flood of recordings of Bach's masterpiece will ever stop. Probably not, even if one often has to conclude that a new performance doesn't offer us any new insights and is even not as good as some recordings which are already available on disc. There is at least one thing which is different about Egarr's recording: he opted for the version of 1727 which is not often performed, let alone recorded. I'll return to his performance later. First I concentrate on a recording of the 'conventional' version of 1736.

In June 2013 I paid some attention to a new Bach project in Switzerland on my weblog. The musician Rudolf Lutz and private banker Konrad Hummler resolved in 1999 to re-interpret Bach's complete vocal works - first and foremost his over 200 cantatas - in a new concert cycle. The project, which will span approximately 25 years, is privately funded by the J.S Bach Foundation of St. Gallen. I gave my impression of the first discs I had received and came to the conclusion that these performances wouldn't provide us with any new insights into Bach's cantatas. I added: "That is not meant as criticism; it is just not the purpose of this project." This observation also goes for the present recording of the St Matthew Passion. The booklet includes an interview with Rudolf Lutz - in German and English - but unfortunately he doesn't touch any questions in regard to performance practice, for instance the issue of the number of singers involved. What we have here is a line-up according to the standard which has been set in the early days of historical performance practice. Solo voices, a chamber choir of around 16 singers - in this case two choirs of 19 and 16 respectively - and a small orchestra on period instruments. The basso continuo is shared by harpsichord and chamber organ. If there are differences between this performance and many others it is the allocation of the various vocal parts. Wolf-Matthias Friedrich who sings the bass arias also takes care of the role of Pilate. It was not the intention that Charles Daniels would sing both the part of the Evangelist and the tenor arias, but this is the result of a late cancellation. The arias are divided between the two choirs but Lutz didn't allow himself the luxury of using different singers. Whereas the cantatas are released in live recordings this performance of the St Matthew Passion is a studio recording. The booklet gives only 2012 as the year of recording.

In recent years I have reviewed here several recordings of the St Matthew Passion. Among them were performances with one voice per part; some of them were quite good but not entirely satisfying. I was even less happy with performances in which the vocal forces are larger. If I want to listen to a really good recording I mostly turn to the one under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt which is devoid of mannerisms and which pays much attention to the text. More importantly, it is one of the few performances which is able to move me. I am happy to report that the recording under Rudolf Lutz's direction comes pretty close to Leonhardt's in this respect.

Lutz has brought together a very fine team of singers. Charles Daniels is probably the world's best Evangelist right now. He is a most eloquent storyteller: when he tells that the disciples have fallen asleep (18) one can almost see them sleeping. And when he says that the soldiers spit on Jesus (53) you can see them spitting. Daniels brings just the right amount of emotion into his part, for instance when he tells about Peter's denial of Jesus (38). The closing words: "and he went out and wept bitterly" is very moving. I don't know who was to sing the tenor arias, but I can't believe anyone could bring better performances than Daniels. The recitative 'Mein Jesus schweigt' and the aria 'Geduld' are highly expressive, with much attention to details in the text. The part of Jesus is sung by Peter Harvey. I have never been a great admirer of his, but he brings a fine performance here, with a good differentiation between his strength and authority on the one hand and his emotional concern for his disciples on the other.

Joanne Lunn is excellent in the soprano arias. Now and then she uses some vibrato but it is hardly disturbing. The recitative and aria 'Er hat uns allen wohlgetan - Aus Liebe' (48,49) are among the highlights of this performance as she fully explores the emotional depth of the text. Margot Oitzinger has a beautiful voice and sings very well. But she is a little short on expression and as a result I was not really moved by the arias 'Buß und Reu' and 'Erbarme dich'. The aria 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen' (52) is the best part of her contribution. Wolf-Matthias Friedrich is a seasoned interpreter of German sacred music from the baroque period and that shows. His account of the part of Pilate is spot on and he sings his arias beautifully, especially 'Mache dich, mein Herze rein' (65). The smaller roles are given good performances by members of the choir.

The choruses come off very well, although the number of singers reduces their transparency and often makes the text hard to understand. The turbae get exactly the right amount of drama; the turmoil among the crowds comes off perfectly. In the opening chorus I was struck by the good realization of the rhythmic pulse; it has an almost dance-like character. However, I find the chorales rather disappointing. They are too straightforward with too much legato singing. Single words should have been given more attention. Early in the second part the two chorale stanzas 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden' and 'Du edles Angesichte' (54) are interrupted by a short harpsichord improvisation. That is really odd and I can't figure out the reasons for it. It is one of the minuses of this performance. The orchestra leaves nothing to be desired; individual members give fine performances of the various obbligato parts.

One issue needs to be mentioned: the fact that the vocal and instrumental forces in the St Matthew Passion are divided into two choirs is hardly audible. The singers are mostly in the centre. Obviously one shouldn't go too far in splitting the ensemble if that would result in the Evangelist, for instance, being heard only on the left channel. But there should have been a stronger difference between left and right than is the case here.

This recording is not without flaws but these are more than compensated by its many virtues. I rate it very highly and it belongs certainly in the upper ranks of the discography of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Let us turn to Egarr's recording of the 1727 version; the fact that it is not often performed is a little odd considering that an edition is available since 2004. It seems that this recording is only the second; in 2013 Hyperion released a recording under the direction of Peter Seymour. As I haven't heard it I can't compare the two interpretations, but the booklet of the Hyperion recording is available online and offers much more detailed information about the differences between the two versions than the booklet of the present recording. In his liner-notes Egarr refers to the general view that later versions are better than the earlier ones. On the Bach Cantata website I found quotations which indeed refer to the later versions as including "improvements" of the 1727 version. Egarr disagrees: "[Heretical] as it may seem to say, in many ways I prefer the original 1727 score to Bach's own 1736 revision". However, this doesn't imply that he thinks the latter is worse: "How could Bach possibly make things worse by tinkering? Of course he didn't, but conversely it is not the case that earlier versions are necessarily worse - just different".

Let me mention the main differences. 'Ich will hier bei dir stehen' (17) is the sixth stanza from the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. In the early version we hear the seventh stanza, 'Es dient zu meinen Freuden'. In the 1736 version the first and second stanza are included in the second part (54), but in the early version Bach confines himself to the first. The first part ends with the chorale 'Jesum laß ich nicht von mir' instead of the large-scale chorale arrangement 'O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß'. The aria 'Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin!' which opens the second part is not for alto but for bass. In the aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' the bass is not supported by a viola da gamba but by a lute. Other differences regard melody, harmony and word setting. If you know the St Matthew Passion well you will immediately notice that kind of things. As the early version is seldom performed and recorded it may well take time to get used to it.

Even though another recording is on the market one may welcome this performance. However, although there are certainly parts which are pretty good my overall impression is rather negative and the causes are largely the same as in regard to Egarr's recording of the St John Passion. Egarr likes to take swift tempi. However, while listening I noted several times that the tempi were too fast whereas they were not fundamentally different from Rudolf Lutz's which I generally found satisfying. The main difference seems the lack of dynamic accents in Egarr's performance and the fact that in his interpretation the rhythmic pulse is severely underexposed. That comes immediately to the fore in the opening chorus. Egarr takes 6'25", Lutz 6'15", but the former gives the impression of being rushed and rather superficial; Lutz creates a nice swing which gives the piece an almost dance-like character as I noted above. The same goes for several arias. On the other hand, the aria 'Aus Liebe' is pretty slow, even slower than Leonhardt who mostly takes rather modest tempi. One of the things which especially annoyed me is the way the chorales are sung. Leonhardt was a master in shaping the chorales according to the text. I am not satisfied with the way Lutz performs them, but Egarr is even worse. The text seems not to matter at all; the tempi are largely the same and there is no text expression whatsoever. The way the fermates are treated is inconsistent. Staying with the choir I noted that several voices sing with quite a lot of vibrato which really damages the ensemble. It manifests itself negatively in the opening chorus. The turbae are mostly rushed, and as a result they are not well articulated which seriously undermines their dramatic impact. Because of a lack of transparency the text is not always clearly understandable.

Just like in the St John Passion the performances of the soloists are uneven. James Gilchrist generally does a good job as the Evangelist although I prefer Daniels by far. The tempo is an issue here; some parts of the recitatives are too slow and should have been taken in a more natural speech-like tempo. Matthew Rose again takes the role of Christ; I still finds his voice utterly unattractive and I also would prefer a brighter and more 'open' voice. Elizabeth Watts and Sara Connolly both use far too much vibrato. 'Erbarme dich' is largely spoilt by it and the same goes for 'Aus Liebe'. I was never moved by the singing of either of them. Thomas Hobbs acts on a different wavelength; his performances of the tenor arias are completely idiomatic, both stylistically and in regard to pronunciation. One clearly notices his long-time cooperation with Philippe Herreweghe. Christopher Maltman is almost his equal; I have listened to the bass arias with satisfaction. The smaller roles are generally performed well by members of the choir.

I have noticed the main differences between the versions of 1727 and 1736, but one aspect I haven't mentioned yet. The soprano in ripieno in the opening chorus is not sung here but played by wind and organ. I assumed that this was part of the 1727 version as it has come down to us, but that is not the case. In Seymour's recording this part is sung, as usual, but Egarr decided to 'rescore' it for organ and winds. He doesn't give any explanation and I find it quite weird.

I hope to be able to listen to Seymour's recording at some time. It may be an alternative to Egarr's, because the latter is in the end unsatisfying, despite some nice moments.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Academy of Ancient Music
J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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