Johann Sebastian BACH
St Matthew Passion (1729) [160:10]
Johannes Chum (tenor) - Evangelist; Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass) - Jesus; Christina Landshamer (soprano); Marie-Claude Chappuis (alto); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Thomas Quasthoff (bass); Klaus Häger (bass) - Judas/Petrus/Pilatus.
Thomanerchor Leipzig; Tölzer Knabenchor
Gewandhausorchester/Riccardo Chailly
rec. Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 2-3 April 2009
DECCA 478 2194 [80:31 + 79:39]

Having had such a fun time with the Brandenburg Concertos from this sequence of Bach releases from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester I leapt at the chance to make the acquaintance of this St Matthew Passion.

All of the qualities in the Brandenburgs leap out of the speakers from the outset. These recordings have a clean immediacy which makes them something special, and an experience to which you know you are going to want to return. Juicy sonics and fine musicianship are a basic requirement of a modern recording, so with numerous competitors jostling for position this new release needs a little extra to stand out from the crowd. In terms of presentation this is a given. The purple livery for this release is no accident. The colour represents mourning, and is often brought out for religious ceremonies at Lent. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more use of it in this repertoire, but like well designed books in a bookshop this series has its own ‘look’, and this neat monochrome is unlikely to be overlooked.

The St Matthew Passion on two CDs? A timing of around 160 minutes is not so very unusual these days, and Chailly undercuts Frans Brüggen on Philips, Masaaki Suzuki on BIS, and Paul McCreesh on Archiv by only a few minutes. Grand old names such as Klemperer and Richter take us into different realms on these terms, but even though most releases are spread over three discs we can in part thank advances in technology for CDs over 80 minutes, and resulting two disc sets such as this one. Chailly’s opening chorus almost makes us believe he could get the whole thing on one disc however. The subject matter, an expression of the utmost grief, is usually allowed a deal more space for Bach’s suspensions to resonate and affect us, but Chailly sets off more at a gallop, a 6/8 minuet dance towards Calvary. If like me you are looking to shed a tear from the outset, in readiness to settle down to what Hindemith might have called “some fairly hefty mourning”, then you may well find this rather jaunty opening a little unsettling. There is no doubting the musicianship in the choral singing however, and the articulation and energetic expression of both choirs is a real strength of this performance. The Tölzer Knabenchor has an excellent track record in Bach, already having appeared in other great recordings like that of the B Minor Mass with the King’s Consort on Hyperion. There are one or two moments where the choral sibilance seems to want to take over from the vocal sonorities, but this is one of those points of choral technique which almost certainly have more to do with the detail picked up on microphones from a performance made for the demands for clarity in a live performance.

All of the soloists are a real treat. Thomas Quasthoff is a draw, his depth and character providing an anchor amongst the rest of the cast - if such an anchor was needed. Klaus Häger is strong enough in the role of Judas and Pilate, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann is very much the central role alpha male, and a suitably authoritative and emotionally communicative Jesus. Perhaps even more central, and certainly the most essential narrative role is taken with great élan by Johannes Chum, who makes a fine Evangelist, dealing with Bach’s extremes of range with capable ease. The female voices are well matched, and as an example the duet ‘So ist mein Jesus nu gefangen’ is another highlight, the impact of the chorus interjections quite startling.

How does the modern orchestra stack up in an interpretation which borrows heavily, and in my view correctly from historically informed performance practice? I have heard commentators pointing out some tortuous elements in terms of ornamentation, but I didn’t hear anything much which disturbed me and I’m afraid I didn’t quite get their point. Yes, as with Chailly’s Brandenburg Concertos we are hearing the music with the somewhat richer sounds of modern wind instruments, but I find the sonorities convincing almost entirely throughout. Complex counterpoint and orchestration such as the finale of Part 1 has plenty of that nasal oboe/cor anglais astringency, and the flutes are tamed into sounding almost like recorders in places. Chailly goes for the clean lines and un-laboured, transparent textures which this piece needs, and the combination of tremendous choral singing and finely moulded orchestral textures works well.

The reference I have had on my shelves for some years now is that conducted by Philip Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. This is a fine performance and recording from 1998, but does show up the differences Chailly is keen to introduce more than a decade later. Herreweghe is more focused on the purely musical qualities in Bach’s tremendous masterpiece. The effect of listening to his recording on a long car journey is like having the hand of God under your wheels, safely guiding you to your destination, but it does become a bit samey after a while. The balance of drama tips more in Chailly’s direction, and in this sense his recording has more impact and narrative conciseness, more ‘nip’ and vibrancy. My mate Graham of Leeds, who has also recently taken up this CD reviewing lark, described the St Matthew passion as “a gorblimey guv of a piece” in the context of this very recording - in a private email I hasten to add. For me this neatly sums up something of the way the St Matthew Passion can still affect us, stopping us in our tracks, making us stand, stare, and say ‘gorblimey guv’ even if not out loud. We both agree on the point of Chailly’s vitality and verve in this music. If there was ever a St Matthew Passion which came close to opera, then this is a top candidate. Take that wonderful moment where the aria Erbarme dich kicks in, again at a pace a good deal swifter than with many, but with needle-sharp violin lines and a driving bass which lifts the soul to rare heights. This kind of interpretation informs and reflects the reasons for that less than pensive opening chorus - we’re in the middle of all the action, and living it in real time, rather than watching a chorus of saintly cherubs singing about it from a remote cloud.

Does this recording knock aside all comers? No, but you can be assured that if the recording(s) you already possess are beginning to sound a bit drab, this is the one which will blow away the cobwebs and re-ignite your interest. Yes, there are a few moments where you might look up and think, ‘what? that’s not the way we normally do this’. However, in the final reckoning any aspects which might take a bit of getting used to are far outweighed by the fine qualities in the performance. Chailly’s reading is urgent and dramatic as well as being refined and idiomatically convincing. This makes for a St Matthew Passion which will keep you engaged and awake, as well as in a trance of wonder in finding yourself amongst such a verdant field of musical rewards.

Dominy Clements