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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1727)
Nico van der Meel (tenor) – Evangelist; Raimund Nolte (bass-baritone) – Jesus; Locky Chung (bass) – Petrus/Judas/Pilatus/Pontifex; Claudia Couwenbergh (soprano); Marianna Beate Kielland (alto); Markus Schäfer (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass)
Dresden Chamber Choir; Cologne Cathedral Boys’ Choir;
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
rec. DeutschlandRadio, Sendesaal des Funkhauses Köln, May 2005
NAXOS 8.557617-19 [67:45 + 49:47 + 43:35]

 

 

There is no lack of recordings of this monumental work, many of them utterly recommendable. When a new contender arrives the question arises: Do we need still another recording? A second question could be: Even if it’s good – will enough people buy it?

On the surface of things the existing recordings seem to fill most needs, spanning from Klemperer’s magisterial romantic reading to period instrument versions with small choral forces and a stamp of authenticity. Neither of the groups of listeners advocating these two extremes will be completely satisfied with Müller-Brühl’s reading. On the other hand he steers a middle course, using modern instruments played according to historical performance practice. He employs a smallish (by Klemperer standards) choir – 36 singers when they are all singing – and he has all-round soloists who evince good knowledge of baroque practice. “Middle-of-the-road” always sounds so condescending – and it isn’t; Müller-Brühl is closer to the “historical” movement but has at least one leg somewhere in the middle. My conclusion after this preamble is that this is a recording that on performance-practice grounds should be accessible and attractive to a wide variety of listeners. The nest question is: is it any good?

When I grew up in the 1950s I was for some years an avid jazz-listener. I always had a wish to explore the supposed riches of the classical department, and one day I read somewhere that Bach was a good starting point, because he “swings”, the article said. Sounded promising so I sought out a couple of Bach records and felt they were heavy-footed and dull. One day I found an EP with the third Brandenburg Concerto played by Boyd Neel and his Orchestra (older readers will nod approvingly). There was the swing I had hoped for, so that poor little record rotated on my turntable so often that my father eventually asked: “Have you only got one record?” Some years later I bought a budget priced reissue of August Wenzinger’s mid-1950s recording of the Brandenburgers on period instruments. That was it: I was finally hooked. He was on a par with Benny Goodman and the other guys. By then I had moved out to a place of my own so no-one complained about my “only” record.

Out of this discussion comes my verdict: Müller-Brühl has an affinity with Goodman! Just listen to the opening chorus Kommt, ihr Töchter with rhythms well sprung and a transparent texture that makes it lighter and livelier than in many other readings. Though this is a passion, a tragedy in theatrical terms, it should still be redeemed by some divine light, and that is exactly what it receives. The choir is excellent throughout and the 36 voices actually sound like double that number – in power that is; the precision is chamber choir tight. The chorales are sensibly paced, always with a sense of forward direction and no sleep-walker feeling. There are of course ritardandi at the end and this is just as it should be. The final chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder is also fairly fast but with no loss of devotional spirit. Leaving a performance of St Matthew Passion should be like leaving church after a deeply-felt sermon. To me at least this feeling was there. The playing of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra is a well-known quantity by now, not least through a steadily increasing number of Naxos recordings. They play admirably; the many important instrumental solos are well taken. Let me just mention the violin in the alto aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott! (CD2 track 10), full and creamy and not a trace of the thin wiriness to which some anti-authenticists are allergic.

Of course St Matthew Passion is a choral work, but the soloists are of equal importance and there is little cause for complaint in this recording. Nico van der Meel is an experienced Bach singer, light-voiced and flexible and singing his long recitatives with insight. Occasionally he is strained but on the whole his is a very reliable Evangelist, even though he doesn’t erase memories of Kurt Equiluz. Equiluz took the part for Harnoncourt (his first St Matthew) and also for Hans Swarowsky in a probably long forgotten Concert Hall recording from the 1960s, featuring among others Heather Harper. Jesus is here sung by Raimund Nolte, whose well-modulated bass-baritone is adroitly suited to the part. He doesn’t miss the dramatic opportunities and Ich werde den Hirten schlagen (CD1 track 14) is sung with appropriate anger. Korean-born Locky Chung takes on a variety of roles, Petrus, Judas, Pilatus and Pontifex. Though he sings well he is too lightweight. His is more a high baritone than an authoritative bass-baritone.

The quartet of aria singers are also good. Dutch soprano Claudia Couwenbergh is light and bright-voiced and has a glittering attractive fast vibrato. Her first recitative and aria (CD1 tracks 12, 13) are beautifully done and even better is the aria in part 2, Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (CD2 track 20). I described at some length Marianna Beate Kielland’s voice in my recent review of some Bach cantatas, also on the Naxos label (see review). Those characteristics appear also hear: a beautiful, evenly-produced mezzo-soprano with a timbre that makes her sound uncannily like a counter-tenor. I liked it then, with some small reservations, and I like her even better in the magnificent alto arias in this work. Once it was common practice to employ a fruity contralto; today the leaner sound of Ms Kielland feels more in character with the music. Buss und Reu (CD1 track 6), Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin (CD2 track 1) and the aforementioned Erbarme dich, mein Gott! (CD2 track 10) are all highlights.

The tenor soloist, Markus Schäfer, is no newcomer to this music, either. He has recorded St Matthew Passion at least three times before, for Leonhardt, Spering and Harnoncourt (his remake from 2001). He is eager and emphatic in the recitative O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz and sings the aria, Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen with clear runs and lively expression (CD1 tracks 19, 20). In part 2 he is equally impressive in the recitative and aria Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille …Geduld! Geduld! (CD2 tracks 5, 6). Hanno Müller-Brachmann also makes the most of the dramatic opportunities. Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder (CD1 track 22) is a good example. He delivers a swinging Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder (CD2 track13) and the aria near the end, Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (CD3 track 13) is full of conviction. Müller-Brachmann is quickly becoming one of the most important German bass-baritones: a good opera artist with presence and an excellent Lieder-singer, besides being a concert singer of stature.

Do we need another St Matthew Passion? We are spoilt for choice already so there wasn’t a crying need. However a well-sung, well-played, well-recorded “middle-of-the-road” - I hate that word, but I didn’t find a better one in my dictionary - version, selling at budget price will always have a market. This is especially true for those who contemplate their first St Matthew - and everybody should have at least one - need look no further. From here there are rich opportunities to prospect for complementary versions. For many listeners, though, one version may be enough. You won’t get a libretto and a translation, but they can be down-loaded from the internet. At least the meagre booklet has a complete track-list.

Bottom line: nobody acquiring this set will go far wrong, whatever basic attitude to baroque practice one will have and the impecunious beginner will get a recording to live with for many years.

Göran Forsling

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