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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion (abridged)
Evangelist - Karl Erb (tenor)
Jesus – Willem Ravelli (bass)
Jo Vincent (soprano)
Ilona Durigo (alto)
Louis van Tulder (tenor)
Herman Schey (bass)
Piet van Egmond (organ)
Johannes den Hertog (harpsichord)
Louis Zimmermann (violin)
G. Blanchard (oboe d’amore)
W. Peddemors (oboe da caccia)
Hubert Barwahser (flute)
Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir
"Zanglust" Boys’ Choir
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
Recorded on Psalm Sunday, 2nd April 1939 in the Concertgebouw
Suite No.2 in B minor BWV 1067
Concerto in D minor for Two Violins BWV 1010
Louis Zimmermann and Ferdinand Helman (violins)
Air from Suite No.3 in D major BWV 1068 (arr. Telico)
Concertgebouw Orchestra
Air from Suite No.3 in D major BWV 1068 (arr. Mahler)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
Willem Mengelberg
Recorded 1929-38
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110880-82 [71.42 + 62.46 + 72.58]

When this legendary live performance first appeared in the UK, on four Philips LPs, in March 1955 I was a schoolboy in short trousers, the set cost well over £7, many workers’ weekly pay was not much more, and Mengelberg was under the twin clouds of Nazi collaboration and excessive romanticism. So it had been known at first by reputation rather than first-hand experience until successively reappearing on various labels.

Ultimately Philips reissued it on two CDs as a Philips Duo (462-871-2PM2) which are currently available. Unfortunately they cut an already cut performance to fit the two discs, dropping three numbers (the bass recitative ‘Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder’; the chorus ‘Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’; and the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’) a total of 8’34". It is complete on Naxos. One has the impression earlier Philips reissues were taken from re-dubbings of the 1952 LPs or their tape masters, which presumably went out of copyright in 2003. Naxos tell us they have used Dutch LPs, so the same. However, listening to the spacious sound one assumes that Philips have returned to the original Philips-Miller film, though they make no claims in their booklet. They have also left some film hiss and crackle, particularly near the beginning. For Naxos the original LPs have been used as the source of this bright, clean reissue on 3 CDs of everything Mengelberg gave us, together with all five commercially issued Mengelberg Bach orchestral recordings.

Hearing historical recordings of the St Matthew Passion is very much an interest of the moment for we have just celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first British hearing of the Bach, with two Festival Hall performances, an exhibition, and a scholarly conference at the Royal Academy of Music. In the nineteenth century this, along with many other choral works, was treated to the massive performance practice given to Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. For example Sir Henry Wood's account of his approach to the St Matthew Passion (in My Life of Music). For his Sheffield Festival performance in 1908, Wood wanted to do a more authentic version than the Robert Franz edition then generally given in the UK which added trumpets and trombones, and used an English text which was not faithful to the King James Bible. But Wood's attempt at authenticity produced a performance in which he used a choir of three hundred, a very full complement of strings and eight woodwind to each part. Wood remarked that all he did was to amplify Bach's original orchestration. This was symptomatic of the approach to Bach and Handel in the days of big choirs and choral festivals.

Although not on that scale, later performances and early recordings reflected that philosophy, notably heard in the celebrated, idiosyncratic, but most rewarding account conducted by Vaughan Williams in 1958 (Pearl GEMS 0079) a view he had developed in performances throughout the inter-war years. Later, for British audiences came the Elgar-Atkins edition which introduced English words from the King James Bible, and was first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in 1911. We may put it in perspective by reference to the splendid reissue on Dutton (2CDAX 2005) of the celebrated 1947-8 Decca recording featuring Kathleen Ferrier and the Bach Choir, once on an astounding 42 78 sides, which many readers will have long cherished in its reissue on three Ace of Clubs LPs.

The German nineteenth century historical performance tradition in this work survives in a broadcast conducted by Hans Weisbach preserved on 78rpm acetates and currently available on Preiser 9099, and a 1941 wartime broadcast from St Thomas’s, Leipzig, by Günther Ramin (with Erb, Hüsch and Lemnitz) once on 31 78 sides, which, distressingly, we are told was cut to remove all Jewish references. It was available on CD (if you can find it) on Calig 50859/60. Polydor (67951-68S) also once had a commercial version conducted by Bruno Kittel with his own choir and the Berlin Philharmonic on 37 sides though possibly never transferred to CD. The other 78 version, known by repute though not widely heard outside the USA was that of a live performance in Boston – said to be the first complete performance in Boston - conducted by Koussevitsky in 1937 and issued by Victor on a weighty 53 sides. Once on LP (Adlonni AH 202/3) it is currently available on three Rockport Recordings CDs (RR 5012/4), and although criticised by some it is worth exploring for Keith Faulkner’s honey-toned Christus. Later came Furtwängler’s 1954 EMI recording (CHS 5 65509-2). This tradition had its final apotheosis in Klemperer’s celebrated EMI recording in 1961, notable not only for superb playing and choral singing, but for a remarkable solo line-up and Klemperer’s monolithic vision.

In Amsterdam Mengelberg had long conducted an annual performance of the Matthew Passion, a tradition he had started in 1899. The earliest surviving recorded trace of this tradition comes from acetates dating from 1936 and issued on one CD by the late Michael G Thomas on his Archive Documents label (ADCD 109). Three years later this performance, from 2 April 1939, was recorded live by Dutch Radio using the Philips-Miller Optical Recording system. (For details of the system and its application to this work see website The outbreak of war five months later meant the recording was consigned to a basement and forgotten, not coming to life again until they were played in front of an invited audience in the small hall at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1952, and subsequently issued on LPs.

Mengelberg’s is a great performance based on years of study and performance, with leading soloists, notably the tenor Karl Erb as the Evangelist but also soprano Jo Vincent and the bass Willem Ravelli as Jesus. This is an emotional and romantic portrayal by artists who clearly believed in it and were caught up in the sacred drama. The actual sound of the soloists is remarkably good, they are beautifully caught on the wing. The choir is passionate, doubtless sensing the ending of an era, remarkably fervent and has considerable impact but in very loud passages tends to distortion and taken on a glassy hard sound, the one area where I might marginally prefer the Philips reissue. Mengelberg uses harpsichord continuo and his player, Johannes den Hertog, has a curiously massive-sounding instrument occasionally not unlike a piano.

This is one of the great monuments of the recorded literature: you accept it for what it is: glory in the passionate and romantic telling of the story, and thank God it has come down to us. Curiously, for once I can recommend the Philips on two discs as the cheaper option if you cannot afford the Naxos!

The fillers for Naxos, on 3 discs, are a different kettle of fish. Mengelberg’s massive, scoopy, 1930s performances of orchestral works by Bach - the booklet claims them to be the complete Mengelberg commercial recordings, dating from 1929 to 1938 – are not to everyone’s taste these days, and I suspect you will not often return to them, though if you want them they are unlikely to be better done, and it is fascinating to hear Mahler’s version of the ‘Air’ from Suite No 3, portamenti and all. But the St Matthew Passion is the thing, an astonishing survival of a cherishable tradition, bringing unique insights and the lifetime’s experience of a great conductor, played and sung by some of the leading performers of their day. Wonderful.

Lewis Foreman

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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