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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
St Matthew Passion (1785) (H 798)
Isabella Stettner, soprano; Thomas Dewald (Evangelist), tenor; Daniel Jordan (Jesus), Jochen Kupfer, baritone
Zelter-Ensemble der Sing-Akademie Berlin/Joshard Daus
Recorded 4-5 April 2004, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany. DDD
CAPRICCIO 60.113 [55:01]

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In 1767 the Music Director of Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann, died. As his successor, his godson Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was appointed. One of his duties was to compose and perform a setting of the Passion every year. In Hamburg the Passions were performed in a four-year cycle, in which the Gospels alternated, starting with St Matthew and closing with St John. Bach asked Telemann's grandson, Georg Michael, who had taken over his grandfather's duties for the time being, what the circumstances of Passion performances in Hamburg were, assuming his first duty was to compose a Passion for 1768. But his departure from Berlin was delayed and he arrived in Hamburg shortly before Easter 1768. Therefore his first Passion was the St Matthew Passion of 1769.

Passions in Hamburg were considerably shorter than elsewhere. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, the Passion was performed during a regular service, not as part of a special Vesper service - as in Leipzig, for instance. In addition, many members of the congregation didn't enter church before the sermon started. Therefore it was decided to perform the whole Passion after the sermon, whereas originally Passions were divided into two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon respectively. As a result the Passions written for Hamburg started with Jesus and his disciples going to the Mount of Olives, and ended with the Crucifixion.

The circumstances under which Bach had to produce the Passions were less than ideal. The Passion had to be performed in the five main churches within a couple of weeks, and the Music Director was also responsible for the Passion music in the subsidiary churches. But he had no more than eight singers and fifteen instrumentalists at his disposal.

One of the features of Bach's Passions is the use of music by other composers. One of the sources of Bach's borrowings was his father's St Matthew Passion. In particular Johann Sebastian's settings of the turbae and chorales were incorporated into Carl Philipp Emanuel's Passions. In his first settings they are used practically unaltered, but from the second half of the 1770s on he started to rework them, in order to create a greater stylistic unity within his Passions. In the St Matthew Passion of 1785 we find a number of passages which sound very familiar to our ears - not, of course, to those of the Hamburg congregation, which had never heard the old Bach's Passions -, but in most cases something has changed, for instance the harmony or the instrumentation. He took over some hymns, but on a different text, or he put them in a different place. Sometimes the upper voice remains unaltered, but the other parts have been changed. In some turbae Bach uses the same rhythm as his father, but on different music. In others he keeps the basic structure, but changes the instrumentation.

There are also considerable differences between the Passions of Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel. First, the Passions of the latter are far less dramatic, and much more lyrical, which is especially demonstrated in the choruses. It is here where Carl Philipp Emanuel uses stanzas from newer hymns. Since the chorales were sung by the congregation he could use only those melodies and texts which were printed in the Hamburg hymn book which was unaltered since 1700.

Another difference is the number of arias. In this Passion there are just three: two for bass and one for tenor, with one arioso for soprano. The texts reflect the spirit of the Enlightenment. They are of a more reflective and rather moralistic nature, like the aria 'O grosses Bild des Menschenfreundes': "O great image of a friend of man, gaining salvation for his enemies, come, from him learn about love (...). Do not desecrate religion through impetuous forces of revenge."

It is good to have a recording of this Passion, which is part of the archive of the Berlin Singakademie. The archive disappeared at the end of World War II and thankfully was rediscovered in 1999 in Kiev. But I wish the performance had been better. The main problem is not that the orchestra is playing on modern instruments, although that is disappointing. It does its best to play like period instrument orchestras, but does so not very convincingly: even the leader, the seasoned baroque violinist Florian Deuter, can't really change the traditional playing style. A bigger problem is the choir, which is far too large, lacks clarity and flexibility and produces a sound which is too thick and massive.

The recitatives are sung in tempi which are generally unnaturally slow. The singing of Thomas Dewald and Daniel Jordan is too traditional and vibrato-ridden. Jochen Kupfer is the only participant who is thoroughly convincing in his stylish performance of the two bass arias.

This St Matthew Passion deserves a much better performance than it is given here.

Johan van Veen



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