> BACH Matthew Passion Ferrier/Karajan URN22185 [CF]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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St Matthew Passion BWV 244

Irmgard Seefried (soprano)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto)
Walther Ludwig - Evangelist (tenor)
Otto Edelmann (bass)
Paul Schöffler - Jesus
Erich Kaufmann - Peter
Hardal Pröglhöf - Judas
Otto Wiener - Pilate
Walter Berry - Pontifex
Anny Felbermayer - Pilate’s wife
Gisela Rathauscher - First maid
Rosl Sterba - Second maid
Magdalena Stowasser - First witness
Friedrich Uhl - Second witness
Alois Forer/Anton Heiler - organ
Vienna Choral Society (Wiener Singverein)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Herbert von Karajan (conductor)
Recorded live: Vienna 9 June 1950
URANIA URN 22.185 3CDs [207’56"]


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Karajan does have a tendency to take plodding tempi especially in the choruses and chorales. The chorus, the Wiener Singverein (which Brahms headed for a while), produce textures which lack clarity of focus with a cloying sound. This is compounded by irritating sopranos who cannot seem to hit the note spot in the middle, but always scoop up from a flat start. Seefried sounds rather timid at first in ‘Blute nur’ as if she might have been intimidated by Ferrier’s presence, but then it all seems to grow in confidence as the aria progresses. Her voice was always noted for its lightness and charm, but here it’s also a matter of distance from the microphones. The sleeve-notes list one of the organists as Anton Heiler but I’m assuming this is meant to be that eminent Austrian organist and composer Anton Heiller. As in the case of Seefried some of the accompanying wind instruments, particularly the pairs of oboes, could have been more closely recorded. One of the highlights is the duet for Seefried and Ferrier ‘So ist mein Jesu’, a gorgeous blend of voices and both of them blessed with lung-power capable of sustaining Karajan’s slow tempo and even the chorus rises to the occasion with those dramatic interjections demanding Jesus’ release. Listen out for the 21 year-old Walter Berry, who takes the minor role of the interrogator Pontifex (High Priest) in the second part (CD 2, tracks 6 and 9).

As with so many of these historical recordings one has to put up with an awful lot of unfamiliar or outmoded styles and unwanted noises off in order to relish their joys, but joys there are aplenty here despite the apparently negative start to this review. This is a live recording made at the Vienna International Bach Festival, a fortnight of the composer’s instrumental and choral music, which took place in the summer of 1950 to celebrate the bicentenary of his death. Sound restoration is good but plagued by creaking floorboards, coughing or by soloists clearing their throats in preparation for their next entry. Whether Karajan’s view of Bach is to your taste will probably depend upon whether or not you want the discs for the uniqueness of Kathleen Ferrier’s voice. Her distinctive qualities, and they are truly marvellous, remind us that coming up to the 50th anniversary of her death next year, 2003, she is by no means forgotten. They are matched by other pleasures, notably Paul Schöffler’s majestic Jesus, while Walther Ludwig’s masterful Evangelist is nowhere better than at the moment the cock crows at Peter’s third denial of Christ, his weeping full of tension and poignant drama. It is followed by the zenith of this performance, Ferrier’s emotionally charged account of ‘Erbarme dich’ (an aria she made a speciality almost as much as Gluck’s ‘Che faro’ from Orfeo) accompanied by an anonymous but divinely poignant violin solo from, presumably, the leader of the orchestra. Bach surely had Kathleen Ferrier in mind 200 years earlier when he wrote this miracle work.

Christopher Fifield

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