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