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.