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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (excerpts)
No. 5 ‘Du lieber Heiland du’ [1:17]
No. 6 ‘Buss und Reu’ [5:11]
No. 8 ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz’ [6:05]
No. 12 ’Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt’ [1:39]
No. 13 ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ [3:50]
No. 27a ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’
No. 27b ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ [4:24]
No. 30 ‘Ach nun ist mein Jesus hin!’ [4:36]
No. 39 ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ [7:41]
No. 48 ‘Er hat uns allen wohlgetan’ [1:24]
No. 49 ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ [5:22]
No. 51 ‘Erbarm’ es Gott’ [1:07]
No. 52 ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ [6:52]
No. 59 ‘Ach Golgotha, unselges Golgotha’ [2:08]
No. 60 ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ [4:14]
No. 67 ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht’ [2:37]
No. 68 ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’ [7:05]
Elly Ameling (soprano); Dame Janet Baker (alto); Neil Jenkins (tenor); John Barrow (bass)
Wandsworth School Boy’s Choir; London Bach Society
Steinitz Bach Players/Paul Steinitz
rec. The Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London, 18 March 1972. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4168-2 [65:43]

After a worrying hiatus, BBC Legends releases have resumed. In the latest batch is this disc, which in my opinion is just the sort of issue that has made BBC Legends one of the most important archive labels, in fact possibly the most important of all.

The disc presents all the soprano and alto solo music from what is evidently a complete live performance of the St. Matthew Passion, featuring two of the finest Bach singers of the post-war generation. However, this is also a very welcome opportunity to salute one of the key pioneer figures in the performance history of Bach’s music in twentieth century Britain.

Paul Steinitz (1909-1988) founded the London Bach Society in 1946 in order to present professional, stylistically informed performances of Bach’s music. In 1952 he gave what was probably the first complete British performance of the St. Matthew Passion in German. But perhaps his greatest achievement was to direct, between 1958 and 1987, the first complete cycle of Bach’s cantatas in professional concert performances in the UK. Steinitz was also Director of Music and Organist of the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, the venue for this performance, from 1949 to 1961. It’s abundantly clear from this CD that he was a sensitive, seasoned and dedicated interpreter of Bach’s music.

Indeed, he establishes his credentials immediately, setting a lovely tempo for the alto aria, ‘Buss und Reu’. It’s not too fast but there’s just the right amount of spring and buoyancy in the rhythms. From the outset it’s equally evident that Janet Baker is on top form. I love the way in which, for the central part of the aria, ‘dass die Tropfen meiner Zähren’, she lightens her voice wonderfully. Not only does this of itself produce a lovely effect but it means that in the da capo, modestly decorated, the strong conviction with which she declaims the text is all the more effective.

In an exquisitely poised account of ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz’ Ameling matches Baker for vocal clarity. It’s noticeable that she decorates the da capo more than did Baker in her opening aria. Ameling brings real feeling to the recitative ’Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt’ and the demanding divisions of ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ are expertly negotiated in a beautifully flowing performance. Here too the excellence of the orchestral support is evident; in this instance the two oboe d’amore players distinguish themselves. In the da capo section of this aria Ameling offers some beautifully agile decoration for us to savour as well as marvellous breath control.

The two singers combine in the difficult ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’. I liked the quite sprightly tempo adopted here by Steinitz. This gives his singers a chance to make sense of Bach’s serpentine, intertwining vocal lines and they do so, blending their voices most intelligently. It also means that there’s no awkward change of gear for the following chorus. In this number the choir sings enthusiastically but there seemed to be quite a bit of snatching at notes.

The chorus is involved also in ‘Ach nun ist mein Jesus hin!’, which opens Part Two of the work. Baker sings with typically communicative commitment but I felt that the choir sounded a bit cloudy and were insufficiently incisive. It also seemed to my ears as if there were some imprecisions of tuning.

To Janet Baker falls the aria that lies at the contemplative heart of the St. Matthew Passion. ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ is one of Bach’s most deeply felt creations and not only does he provide a vocal line of tremendous eloquence, he matches it with probably his most sublime instrumental obbligato. It’s beautifully played here by the unnamed leader of the orchestra and Baker rises to the heights of eloquence with an elevated, deeply sincere piece of singing. She displays supreme artistry throughout this aria; not least in the way she delivers the very last bar of the vocal line. This aria constitutes some seven and a half minutes of sublime music-making and the reading of it is alone worth the price of the disc.

The ineffable sadness of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ is movingly conveyed, first by the instrumentalists (a solo flute and a pair of oboes da caccia) and then by Ameling after the players have so marvellously set the scene. Also notable is the wondrously withdrawn singing through which Baker imparts a real sense of innigkeit in ‘Ach Golgotha.’

It was a very good idea to end this disc of excerpts with the concluding numbers of the whole work. In ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht’ there are short recitatives for all four solo singers and we hear cameo contributions from Neil Jenkins and John Barrow. With all due respect to them the interventions of Ameling and Baker are on a different, higher plane of artistic intensity; listen to the two perfect, silvery top Gs in Ameling’s passage. In the last great chorus it’s pleasing to report that the choir is much more convincing than in their previous appearances and they round off the proceedings very well.

This is a marvellous disc, featuring some wonderful Bach singing from two outstandingly eloquent and perceptive singers. Steinitz supports them splendidly, as does his orchestra. The recorded sound is fine and the only blemish on the enterprise is that BBC Legends continue their perverse policy of failing to provide texts and translations. At least there’s a good booklet note by Alan Blyth.

So a warm welcome back to BBC Legends. This disc will be self-recommending to all admirers of Elly Ameling and Janet Baker and should be equally attractive to all those who simply love excellence in the human voice. Even if you have either or both of them in complete recordings of the work I’d suggest that this live recording is an essential supplement. Recommended with great enthusiasm.

John Quinn




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