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

Jasmin Maria Hörner, Julia Kleiter, soprano; Nohad Becker, Gerhild Romberger, contralto; Georg Poplutz (Evangelist), Christian Rathgeber, Daniel Sans, tenor; Johannes Hill, Florian Küppers, Daniel Ochoa, Christian Wagner, Matthias Winckhler (Jesus), bass
Bachchor Mainz; Bachorchester Mainz
Dir: Ralf Otto

rec: March 26 - April 4, 2018, Mainz, Christuskirche
Naxos - 8.574036-38 (3 CDs) (© 2019) (2.50'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

In recent years, Ralf Otto has recorded two of the main vocal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Christmas Oratorio and the St John Passion. It was only to be expected that the St Matthew Passion would follow, and that recording has been released last year. It arrived too late to be reviewed at the time, and therefore it is the subject of this review, as part of a survey of recordings of Passion music in 2020.

The line-up is largely the same as in the previous recordings: a team of soloists who do not participate in the tutti, a relatively large choir of over 30 voices and an orchestra of period instruments. In this particular recording the choir is even larger: the St Matthew Passion is for two choirs, and Otto decided to extent the number of singers to 44. The split into two choirs has been consistently applied: Otto engaged two teams of soloists, who sing either in the first or in the second choir, and also aurally the separation of the two choirs is noticeable. From a historical point of view I find the size of the choir rather problematic. It is unlikely that Bach - or any composer of his time, for that matter - has ever worked with such a large ensemble. However, musically it was not too bad in the two works I just mentioned, thanks to the quality of the choir and the transparency of the sound. It is different here.

However, I would like to start with the positive aspects of this performance. Georg Poplutz is its main asset. He is an engaging story teller, who sets the right accents. His diction and articulation are excellent, and the tempi are mostly right. Matthias Winckhler's voice is probably a bit lighter than one would expect or consider ideal for the part of Jesus, but overall he is quite convincing. However, sometimes his tempo is too slow. Obviously that is not his fault, but rather the result of decisions by Ralf Otto. And here we come to one of the most problematic features of this performance. Whereas the arias are mostly sung in an appropriate tempo, several choruses are quite slow. That goes for the opening chorus, for instance. Otto needs 7'34", whereas, for instance, Rudolf Lutz takes just 6'15". It is not any different in the closing chorus. Some chorales are sung in an unbearably slow tempo. Through the combination of a large choir and a slow tempo I felt sometimes as if I was transported back to old times, before historical performance practice became the standard. If the tempo is as slow as in some choruses here, it does not surprise that they are short on dynamic accents. Again, the opening chorus is a telling example.

The performances of the soloists who take care of the smaller roles and of the arias, are different. A general problem is the treatment of the appoggiaturas, which is rather inconsistent. Georg Philipp Telemann has explained in detail, how these have to be interpreted. This is largely ignored here, and as a result, the ending of many recitatives is rather unnatural, such as in the soprano part of the last recitative ("Habt lebenslang für euer Leiden tausend Dank"). All of the sopranos and contraltos use too much vibrato. It damages Julia Kleiter's performance of "Aus Liebe', which is otherwise quite expressive. Today we are used to hear the alto parts being performed by male altos. Here Gerhild Romberger sings 'Erbarme dich', which one probably needs to get used to. She sings it rather well, though. She should have made more of 'Buss und Reu'. Jasmin Maria Hörner avoids any sentimentality in 'Blute nur', but the B-part is a bit too harmless. Nohad Becker is disappointing in 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen', due to her wide and incessant vibrato. Overall, the male soloists are more convincing from a stylistic point of view, but not always in matters of expression. Daniel Sans does rather well in 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen', although his articulation sometimes turns to a kind of staccato. Christian Rathgeber sings well in 'Geduld', but is a bit short on text expression. 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' is too down to earth in the performance by Christian Wagner. Daniel Ochoa is a bit pathetic in 'Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder/Gerne will ich mich bequemen' and too operatic in 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder'.

I am not impressed by the recording. The Christuskirche in Mainz seems to be a good venue, as previous recordings prove. However, this recording is rather flat, and especially the orchestra is never allowed to flourish. The balance between soloist(s) and choir is sometimes a little problematic, such as in 'Ach, wo ist mein Jesus hin'.

Whereas in the two previous recordings the positive aspects predominated, I am rather disappointed by this recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Nohad Becker
Johannes Hill
Julia Kleiter
Florian Küppers
Georg Poplutz
Christian Rathgeber
Daniel Ochoa
Daniel Sans
Matthias Winckhler
Bachchor Mainz

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