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

Dunedin Consort & Players
Dir: John Butt

rec: Sept 3 - 6, 2007, Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk
Linn Records - CKD 313 (3 CDs) (© 2008) (2.41'15")

[Coro I] Susan Hamilton, soprano; Clare Wilkinson, contralto; Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), tenor; Matthew Brook (Jesus), bass
[Coro II] Cecilia Osmond, soprano; Annie Gill (1. Zeuge), contralto; Malcolm Bennett (2. Zeuge), tenor; Brian Bannatyne-Scott, bass
Ali Darragh (1. & 2. Magd, Uxor Pilatus), Frances Cooper, soprano in ripieno; Roderick Bryce (Judas, Pontifex I), Michael Wallace (Petrus, Pilatus, Pontifex, Pontifex II), bass

As Bach's St Matthew Passion is one of the monuments of Western music history and has been and is performed and recorded numerous times, there is no need to write anything about the work itself. Therefore a review like this can concentrate on matters of interpretation and performance.

It has been a while since the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin claimed that Bach usually performed his sacred music with one voice per part. It is since the publication of the book The Essential Bach Choir, which he wrote with Andrew Parrott, in 2000 that the debate about the issue has intensified. Some interpreters have immediately been convinced, others have taken a little more time to get convinced, and others are still sceptical or outright reject this concept. It has taken some time before recordings were released where this concept has been put into practice. So far only Paul McCreesh has recorded the St Matthew Passion with one voice per part.

In this recording John Butt directs the Dunedin Consort & Players in another attempt to recreate the circumstances under which Bach may have performed his St Matthew Passion in Leipzig, even though in the booklet he rejects the idea of such a recreation. He describes this recording as "an attempt to explore the possibilities for creative expression within a particular set of historical parameters (which can thereby become opportunities)."

He does use historical arguments, though, in regard to the performance of the roles of the Evangelist, Jesus and the other characters in the gospel. In this respect John Butt's recording is different from Paul McCreesh's. The latter uses only nine singers: 4 per choir and one additional soprano for the soprano in ripieno part. But according to John Butt there are three singers "who - according to the lay-out of Bach's performing parts - play no further role in the performance (not even the chorales; and the two sopranos 'in ripieno' added to the first and last numbers of Part One seem to sing nothing else in the piece)." The highest of the three voices sings the role of Pilate's wife (Uxor Pilatus) and the two servant girls (1. Magd, 2. Magd). The first of the two basses takes the roles of Judas and the first priest (Pontifex I), the second sings the roles of Peter, Pilate, the second priest (Pontifex II) and Caiphas (Pontifex). This is how the roles are sung here too: Roderick Bryce and Michael Wallace only sing their respective roles, but are not taking part in the choruses and chorales, and Ali Darragh sings the three female roles and joins Frances Cooper in the soprano in ripieno part.

Another noteworthy aspect of this recording is mentioned at the title page: "Bach's last performing version, c.1742". This is not generally regarded as a really independent version: some extant material seems not to belong to the version which today is mostly performed, dating from 1736. It is assumed this material dates from a performance at a later date, somewhere around 1742. The two main differences as mentioned in the booklet seem to be the part for harpsichord which replaces the organ in Coro II, and the addition of a viola da gamba to the basso continuo group in the recitative and aria 'Mein Jesus schweigt' - 'Geduld!' in Part Two.

I wasn't very enthusiastic about the interpretation of Paul McCreesh, and therefore I was curious to hear if this new recording is any better. In general I am rating this performance a bit higher as some of the negative aspects of McCreesh's interpretation are absent here. One of these is the ludicrous speed of the opening chorus. John Butt needs about 30 seconds longer - that is better, but still I think it is too fast. The same is true for the closing chorus, where both performances don't really differ. The problem is not so much the speed itself, but the absence of a truly rhetorical approach of both performances. What they have in common is a kind of superficiality which avoids exploring the emotional depth of Bach's music. Too many arias are sung pretty well, but with very little expression of the content. Arias like 'Buß und Reu' or 'Aus Liebe' are pleasant to the ear, but don't make a lasting impression.

A specific problem is the treatment of single words or phrases. Too often words pass by almost unnoticed, like "falsche Zungen stechen" and "Schimpf und Spott" in the aria 'Geduld!'. And when an attempt is made to sing a particular word in a meaningful way there is a chance it goes wrong, like "leiden" in 'Komm, süßes Kreuz'. The articulation also gives reason for criticism: too often the singing is legato, where a clear distinction between the words is required. Also a lack of dynamic accents and too little differentiation between good and bad notes is a problem here, as in McCreesh's recording. Because of a lack of accents there are a number of passages where the rhythmic pulse is underexposed.

The tempi are a matter in itself. I have already referred to the opening and closing choruses. Some arias are rather fast, but that in itself is no problem as long as there is enough text expression. But sometimes arias are surprisingly slow: the aria 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' which I just mentioned is really too slow, and as a result the part of the viola da gamba sounds rather unnatural, as lesser important notes is given too much emphasis - almost inevitable in such a tempo.

Where John Butt does really better than McCreesh is in the choruses and chorales. That is to say: the voices blend better - with the exception of some singers applying a slight vibrato -, which is probably the result of these singers being much more used to sing together as an ensemble, whereas McCreesh had brought together a team of singers who are first and foremost active as soloists. That doesn't mean the choruses and chorales are more expressive than in McCreesh's performance. Many choruses are not very dramatic - for instance 'Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht' in the aria 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' and the following chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner' - and the chorales are too fast and without dynamic accents and articulation on the basis of the text. It seems they are treated as a kind of relaxation, but they are very much part of the drama and should be treated as such.

I have already pointed out that in my view many arias are flat in regard to expression. It's not that they are sung badly - they just don't move in any way. I find some voices also rather unpleasant, but that is a matter of taste. I had liked a more clear voice than Nicholas Mulroy's in the role of the Evangelist. I find his voice a bit dour and almost hoarse; his German pronunciation is rather good, unlike that of some other singers. One problem is the pronunciation of the "ü" which is consistently wrong, like in "Tränenflüssen" and "Sündenherz". The recitatives are marred by a lack of declamation which gives the impression they are rather slow, and that goes for both Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook. A more natural speechlike performance is required here.

To sum up: this recording avoids the eccentricities of McCreesh's performance and whereas I never return to McCreesh I can imagine to listen to this performance sometime in the future. But on the whole this interpretation is largely unsatisfying. I am still waiting for a performance with one voice per part which really explores the spiritual depth and emotional range of this masterpiece.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

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