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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (1727) [120:44]
St. John Passion, BWV 245 (1724) [60:48]
Guy de Mey (tenor, Evangelist)
Peter Kooy (bass, Jesus)
Barbara Schlick (soprano), Kai Wessel (alto)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Gerd Turk (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass)
Netherlands Bach Choir
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman
Recorded in the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, Oudkarspel, June 1992 (Matthew) and
Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, March 1993 (John) DDD
WARNER ERATO 5046 65560-2 [5 CDs: 181:32]


By a stroke of good fortune, the day this re-issued Ton Koopman box from Erato arrived for review, I was sampling the new one-to-a-part version of the St. Matthew Passion from Paul McCreesh on DG, loaned to me by a friend. The same friend (a real Bach lover) had also thoughtfully included the John Eliot Gardiner recording for me to compare. I was thus able to have a wonderfully indulgent (passionate?) weekend comparing some of the best (and very different) Bach playing and singing the record catalogue has to offer.

All three conductors are period experts yet the tempi differ quite markedly. The great opening chorus ‘Kommt, ihr Tochter’, with its measured 12/8 tread hinting at the tragedy about to unfold, illustrates the diverse approaches. Koopman is relatively slow (not quite in the Klemperer league) and one feels the heavy burden being illustrated. He also gives more weight than the others to the lower strings, effectively compounding the feeling of impending disaster. McCreesh is just about twice the speed, turning the number virtually into a dance, albeit a sombre one. Gardiner is (as ever) just about right, somewhere between the two. I have to say I warmed more to Koopman with repeated listenings, ultimately finding McCreesh too rushed and Gardiner missing a degree of gravitas. The choral singing is pretty comparable on the Gardiner and Koopman, with two crack choirs of about the same number (30-ish), while McCreesh’s ‘chorus’ obviously does not have the same weight of tone, but does have incredible flexibility and intensity. Basically, all have different things to offer and can be enjoyed on their own terms.

This sets a basic rule of thumb for the tempi of the three sets; McCreesh (the fastest), Gardiner (a bit slower on the whole, apart from the chorales) and Koopman (with a few exceptions) the slowest of the three. Where Koopman really scores is in his handling of the instrumental details and his pointing of Bach’s wonderful orchestral colouring. Take the soprano aria ‘Blute nur, du liebe Herz’, where Koopman delicately balances the two flutes, violins, violas and organ continuo to seamlessly interweave with the melismatic solo line, producing a wonderfully rich pattern of polyphony. I have long admired a number of his Haydn symphony recordings with this orchestra (particularly the disc featuring numbers 44, 46 and 47), and they are on top form for him here. The strings are elegant yet supple, the all-important wind lines are a delight and the balance with the continuo just about perfect.

His Evangelist is the light-voiced Guy de Mey, an intelligent, mellifluous singer who shapes and characterises the part very convincingly. He does not have quite the presence of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose more overtly operatic rendition suits the theatricality of Gardiner’s approach perfectly. He is nearer to Mark Padmore (McCreesh), but again loses out slightly to Padmore’s earthier, more direct assumption. Peter Kooy (Jesus) may well be familiar from other sets (a number of Bach specialists ‘do the rounds’ on various recordings) and his seasoned experience really shows. I love the way he opens up in the glorious aria ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’, producing a rich flow of bass tone easily as full as that of Michael George (Gardiner).

Slightly more controversial may be Koopman’s use of a male singer for the many alto solos. Other recordings do the same in the name of ‘authenticity’ (notably the Suzuki/ BIS version, which has the rich voiced Robin Blaze) but I find the rather reedy tone of Kai Wessel to be a shade tiresome overall. Certainly the ‘star’ contributions from Anne Sofie von Otter (Gardiner) and Magdalena Kožená (McCreesh) are truly outstanding and make their sets worth hearing for this alone. Sample Kožená’s gorgeously hushed ‘Erbarme dich’, where she is delicately partnered by the silvery violin obbligato of Anna MacDonald, to see what I mean.

Of the other soloists, who are all fine, I particularly liked Christoph Prégardien, who takes a number of the smaller featured tenor roles with great vividness. It is interesting to note that he has become an excellent Evangelist in his own right, recording the part for conductor Hermann Max on the Capriccio label to some acclaim.

Having concentrated on the St. Matthew Passion, I should say that all the same basic attributes apply to Koopman’s St. John Passion, which was recorded within a year and at the time was considered one of his major achievements. As a shorter, more tightly structured work, it boasts just as much drama and spectacle, in its own way, as St. Matthew. When Koopman’s superb chorus enter with the great cry of ‘Herr’ in the opening chorus, the pulsating intensity of what is about to unfold is never in question. The same team of soloists is joined by the excellent Gerd Turk, who went on to be a memorable Evangelist in Suzuki’s St. Matthew on BIS, and here contributes a number of strong, characterful tenor solos.

This five disc box from Erato does make an excellent bargain, though it should be remembered that an even bigger, nine disc box of all the major Bach works from Gardiner’s Arkiv series, has just been released at a similar attractive price (working out at something like four pounds a disc). This Koopman set has nothing really to fear from the competition, but it may be that Bach lovers have their own idea of the soloists they want. The Erato recordings are full-bodied and vivid, with the spacious acoustic adding to the dedication and atmosphere of the music making. Koopman’s chorus and orchestra are as good as any, at least as far as I’ve sampled, and except for the odd reservation, these two performances can be confidently recommended.

Tony Haywood

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