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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
St. Matthew Passion (1727/29) [161.07]
Evangelist – Nico van der Meel (tenor)
Christus – Raimund Nolte (bass baritone)
Claudia Couwenbergh (soprano)
Marianne Beata Kielland (alto)
Markus Schäfer (tenor)
Hanno Muller-Brachman (bass)
Petrus/Judas/Pilatus/Pontifex – Locky Chung (bass)
Dresden Chamber Choir
Cologne Cathedral Boys Choir
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
rec. May 2005, Deutschland Radio, Sendesaal des Funkhauses, Köln. DDD
NAXOS 8.557617-19 [3 CDs: 67.45 + 49.47 + 43.45]


What style of Matthew Passion performance is your preference? This question needs to be asked because Bach’s great passion is such that it brings a vast variety of responses from interpreters. Interpretations on disc vary from those of the grand old symphonic variety to Paul McCreesh’s stunning account using one singer to a part. 

Bach’s original performances probably were closer to McCreesh’s in terms of the number of performers, though even in Bach’s day the St. Matthew was known as the great passion. His contemporaries were aware that it broke the bounds of existing norms and performance requirements. But for a performance of the passion to make an impression it also needs performers of stature. If you wish to hear singers of the calibre of Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Schreier, then you must accept the performance style of their recordings, even not quite to your taste.

For their new recording on Naxos, Helmut Müller-Brühl, Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Dresden Chamber Choir take very much the middle way, using chamber-sized forces, with modern instruments but playing in period style. Müller-Bruhl has a choir of 36 (plus the boys of Cologne Cathedral Choir) and an orchestra of forty which makes for an acceptable balance and enables him to give a reasonably streamlined performance in the modern manner. 

Müller-Brühl’s Bach is not weighty, but on the other hand he does not overly rush through the work – his tempos pick a middle way, taking few risks. Unfortunately this means that in some of the numbers is inclined to plod.

His orchestra gives a crisp, well articulated performance, convincing in their assumption of period performance practice. His wind players turn in some very fine playing.

The chorus is a bright, young-voiced group, providing well shaped choral singing. But in the second half I was rather aware that the text seemed to be a little under-played. This might be the chorus’s fault, but it could well be the fault of the slightly generous acoustic in which they were recorded – the microphones seem to have been closer to the soloists. The turbae appear to lack the sense of vibrant immediacy that Nico van der Meel brings to the surrounding narrations. 

The great opening chorus is given suitable weight and bodes well for the performance. But the substantial final chorus is disappointing; it lacks a suitable feeling of summation. Here the sense of weight and feeling is wanting, leaving simply an attractively light-textured feeling. 

The soloists are an attractive fresh-voiced group and each turns in a creditable performance. But by themselves they are not a reason to buy the disc. Soprano Claudia Couwenbergh sounds rather fragile of voice. Alto Marianne Beate Kielland has an attractive instrument and she sings very musically. But great moments such as Erbarme dich lack the ability to move and Können Tränen meiner Wangen sounds positively pedestrian though she recovers somewhat in Sehet, Jesus had die Hand. 

Tenor Marcus Schäfer has a fine, focused tone, albeit one which is rather inclined to be edgy. Sadly he loses focus at the top and is frankly technically below par in some of the faster moments. Bass Hanno Muller-Brachman comes into his own at the end of Part 2 with a pair of fine performances in Komm, susses Kruez and Mache disc, mein Herze, rein. But in his earlier arias his voice has a tendency to sound a bit uncontrolled and over-resonant. Raimund Nolte is accomplished but rather under-stated; his is not a particularly charismatic Christus.

But if there is one reason for buying this disc it is for the Evangelist of Nico van der Meel. His performance is well modulated and mellifluous but dramatically involving. He projects the text wonderfully and brings the entire performance up to another level. Not everyone will like the rather sharp edge to his voice and the recording has given his very upper register an uncomfortable glare. That said he seems to manage the tessitura with ease and I would welcome hearing him again.

As with many modern performances, this Matthew Passion lacks a real religious feeling. The performers are musical but do not seem to sing from conviction. Many people will wish to turn to an earlier performance if only to get this feeling of the sacred. Intensity is not lacking in some other modern performances, but is not really present here, with the notable exception of van der Meel’s Evangelist.

The CD booklet contains no libretto, but one is available in English and German from the Naxos web-site.

This is a performance that takes few risks. Of course, this means that there are few moments where it falls down, but conversely many places where it fails to rise above the creditable. Perhaps it will find a place in Naxos’s catalogue, catering to people who wish to be introduced to the work and do not wish to be overly challenged. But I would think that a more inspiring performance would do a far better job. 

Robert Hugill 



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