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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
St. Matthew Passion (1785)
Thomas Dewald (tenor); Daniel Jordan (baritone); Jochen Kupfer (baritone)
Zelter-Ensemble der Sing-Akademie zu Berlin/Joshard Daus
rec. live, Berlin Philharmonie, Kammermusiksaal, April 2004. DDD
CAPRICCIO 60113 [55.01]





Have you ever wondered what or who is the missing link between the Passions of J.S. Bach and the more ‘enlightened’ oratorios of Josef Haydn and his contemporaries? For that matter how did things come to change so quickly? I have recently reviewed some cantatas by Gottfried Homilius (1714-1785) on Carus 83.183 and he is certainly a link. But really it is C.P.E. Bach, that great reactionary and under-estimated genius, who is ‘yer man’.

This recording is a result of several years of reconstruction work and then a full performance which took place on Palm Sunday in 2003 after about 220 years of neglect.

Perhaps you know the somewhat eccentric symphonies of C.P.E. or possibly the wild solo piano works, or as we are increasingly discovering, the original and fantastical harpsichord concertos. If you do, prepare for a surprise because this piece is completely different. This is classicism fully formed and ready to taste.

The Capriccio booklet comes with two translated essays - also the full text in three translations. These are written by Dr. Ulrich Leisinger and Ute Scholz-Lawrence. The latter’s essay explains how the C.P.E. work is related to other Passion settings especially those by J.S. Bach. C.P.E. had been interested in the J.S. Passions during his later Dresden years. There are also links with C.P.E.’s three earlier settings. He had made these years before in Hamburg where, it has always been thought, his church music composing career had been more perspiration rather inspiration.

One might call this St Matthew Passion (to mis-quote Stravinsky) a ‘Pocket-Passion’. You get the full story in less than an hour. No aria is overly long - and there are some da capo arias. The recits, in this performance anyway, zip along fluently. The choral work never drags and the story is dramatically told.

C.P.E. starts after an opening chorale, at Gethsemane and ends straight after Christ’s death. His text uses the pattern established by his father. That is recitatives telling the story with dialogue sung by differing characters where necessary. There are hymns for the choir and congregations to join in with, other choral interjections for the choir alone and solo arias which reflect on the story line. The latter show more personal and typically emotional signs of ‘the enlightenment’ period with lines like “A holy pain cuts through my heart, / and. Lord, what can I say? / I can only, deeply moved, strike my bosom”.

The music comes from various sources and inspirations. I have already mentioned C.P.E.’s earlier Passions. These have been to a certain extent refashioned. Secondly he uses chorale melodies found in his father’s work which may be re-harmonized especially in the alto and tenor parts. Thirdly he uses his father’s actual music in choruses and chorales. The effect is rather like walking into a late Gothic church which has been ornamented and slightly rebuilt in the classical style. It comes as a surprise suddenly to hear a chorus straight out of J.S.’s ‘Matthew Passion’ like ‘Warlich, du bist auch einer von denen’(Surely you are one of his disciples). The effect is immediately mitigated by a ravishing, somewhat operatic aria like ‘Ob Erd un Himmel untergehen’ here sung movingly by tenor Thomas Dewald. And this brings me neatly to the performance in general.

Quite often with a disc like this there is one soloist who does not quite hit the mark; here I cannot say that. Some of the cameo roles - like Pontius Pilate and his wife or Judas and Peter - taken by un-named singers are somewhat badly-cast and strained. However the main voices are all very convincing and as with Daniel Jordan they are in top form.

The chorus work is precise, passionate and well balanced. The slightly recessed orchestra is un-flagging in their response to Joshard Daus’s often brisk tempi

It would be unfair to complain about the live recording which does nothing to damage or to especially enhance the music. For myself I would have preferred a church acoustic but in fairness the audience noise is non-existent.

As the C.P.E. Bach catalogue grows this is no doubt a useful addition. For myself I probably will not listen to it that often as ultimately its hybrid-nature and somewhat fitful inspiration does not especially excite me. Full credit though to the performers and editor whose efforts are not in vain and who deserve rich applause for their handiwork and dedication.

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Johan van Veen


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