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Editorial Board
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Matthäus-Passion (St Matthew Passion) BWV 244 [2:37:38]
Patrizia Hardt (alto); Marie Kuijken (mezzo); Petra Noskaiová (alto); Gerlinde Samann (soprano); Christoph Genz (tenor); Bernhard Hunziker (tenor); Jan Van der Crabben (baritone)
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 5-9 April, 2009, Predikherenkerk, Leuven, Belgium. DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72357 [3 CDs: 66:08 + 51:26 + 38:04]

Experience Classicsonline

Some recent great Matthew Passions would include John Butt with the Dunedin Consort and Players on Linn Records 313; Frans Brüggen with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century on Arte Nova 454434; Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort and Players on Archiv Produktion (DG) 000005702 and Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir also on Challenge 72232. This superbly-engineered and historically informed interpretation from seven soloists, La Petite Bande and Sigiswald Kuijken doesn't challenge those iconic recordings but it has much to commend it. In Kuijken's vision there's vitality which draws the listener along; and willingly so for we're never rushed. This new account is based on a most welcome and convincing depth of understanding of the text and its place in the work on the part of these musicians. Theirs is singing and instrumental playing to produce music of great beauty.
Kuijken's views on performance practice for the Matthew Passion have changed significantly since he first recorded it twenty years ago - a recording that's no longer available, by the way. In line with current musicological research, he now favours smaller resources. Indeed, here La Petite Bande consists of no more than a couple of dozen players and fewer than half that many vocalists, who also double as the choir. Given the highly resonant acoustic of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where the work was first performed, this practice makes every sense. It also brings an intimacy, immediacy, and a welcome transparency to the music.
What's more, Kuijken has followed Parrott and Rifkin in going back to the part books we have from the Thomasschule from the 1720s. These reveal not only that the soloists also formed the choir (or vice-versa) but also that the total number of vocalists was small … a dozen at most, perhaps. Whether this was out of necessity or not is still being researched. In this case, for sure, small is beautiful. In fact Kuijken describes the result as 'decidedly more organic and natural'. More, that is, than the huge forces of the 19th and 20th centuries.
He's right: in the chorales and commentary choral numbers we hear the very voices of those whom we come to know as soloists too. The sense of familiarity, closeness, unity of purpose and holistic belief in the text is thus palpable: a group of dedicated musicians lamenting, rejoicing and reflecting, rather than assembled detached performers performing in some sort of hierarchy. Kuijken's singers (and players too) have a naturalness, a spontaneity and a vigour as a result of their being fewer of them which adds immeasurably to the impact of the work.
At the same time the homogeneity of the more madrigalian - to use Kuijken's term, again - sound enhances and reinforces the confessional strengths of the Passion, rather than dilutes them.
At times the direction in which Kuijken and his singers take us is, perhaps, a little overblown: the recitative O Schmerz [CD.1 tr.19], for example, has an almost lachrymose - certainly a romantic - florid quality. Whilst not being actively morbid or maudlin, the tone is on the genteel side of rigorous. The melancholy of those moments of the Passion drives the music forward when penitence or even pride might otherwise do so.
Yet barely a few minutes later, the trenchant aria So ist mien Jesus [CD.1 tr.27] followed by the blistering Sind Blitze, sind Donner [CD.1 tr.27b] fairly spit pointed and unsentimental resentment at us.
This is a recording in which the orchestra is accorded as much prominence as the singers: the balance in Können Tränen [CD.2 tr.52] is typical. One is aware that the alto (in this case) is articulating her regret at being unable adequately to respond to Christ's death against a rich texture of sound other than with only her own voice to carry such regret. The world goes on, seems to be the implication … the Passion as a consolidated reaction to events; events over which we really have no control.
This does tend to emphasise the dramatic, almost the operatic, aspects of Bach's Passion at the expense of the liturgical. On the other hand the sprightly pace at which singers, chorus and orchestra all work their way through each number makes for a direct and almost simple appeal yet never a simplistic one. Nor does the sentiment which almost any performer of this work inevitably has to deal with - even to repress or deny it - interfere with our appreciation of the depth and weight of its meaning.
This juxtaposition of the holy and the entertaining is nowhere more evident than in the short choral episodes such as Der du den Tempel Gottes and Andern hat er holfen [CD.3 tr.s 58b,d] and Herr, wir haven gedacht [CD.3 tr. 66b]. Rather than seeming drained of their Protestantism, the singers have had red blood infused. But such forcefulness may not be to everyone's taste. As may the hint of vibrato in the upper voices, which confers another layer of feeling altogether but also adds more colour.
The acoustic (the Predikherenkerk in Leuven, Belgium) is clean; it amply furthers Kuijken's business-like conception of this St Matthew Passion. It allows both singers' and players' every bar to be heard clearly and with impact. The booklet in German, English and French contains a short introduction to Kuijken's interpretation, performers' biographies and the full texts. Although the system used to identify each number is continuous (1-68) across the libretto and three SACDs, the track-listings in the booklet begin again at 1 for CDs 2 and 3.
This is, nevertheless, a fresh and persuasive account of the Matthew Passion. It's one which will not appeal to everyone because of what may seem to come just a little too close for comfort to something akin to indulgence at the expense of those strictures in others' conceptions which nevertheless convey every bit as much passion.
Mark Sealey


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