Scherchen’s 1953 St Matthew Passion remains an absorbing
performance. Between 1924 and 1966 he conducted the work in
performance in three different cities – Vienna (1957), Brussels
(1965) and Palermo (1960) – but gave multiple performances of
the work over successive days in all but Brussels. The three
LP studio recording was taped between June and July 1953 in
Scherchen’s approach is moving, reverential when necessary,
and fast of foot. The opening chorus is an example of his rhythmically
acute pacing, his giving lift and momentum without sounding
at all breathless. Here he differed radically from earlier,
more monumental interpreters on disc such as Albert Coates or
Siegfried Ochs and Günther Ramin; both the last two took this
at a much slower tempo, gravely, imploringly, movingly, but
not necessarily in a way that always correlated with tempo decisions
made later on in their performances.
Scherchen however is consistent. He is also dramatic, incisive,
and controls the musical argument from beginning to end with
a sense of flexible authority that is most impressive to hear.
He marshals all choruses well, directs recitatives briskly,
and ensures good balances. Noteworthy in particular is the way
he directs the chorales – so delicate, so moving – and the turbae
choruses – so violent, even vicious – and this attests to his
command of all dramatic and expressive components of the work.
His evangelist is Hugues Cuénod whose timbre adds it own personalised
quality. His Da versammleten sich reveals immediately,
through heightened expressive gestures, the rising, almost disembodied
sound of his high tenor. It is a voice that brings a remarkable
intensity to the role of the Evangelist. Heinz Rehfuss is the
rich voiced Jesus, whose portraiture is sympathetically drawn
throughout. The soprano is Magda Laszlo, with whom Scherchen
worked quite a lot in Vienna. Her Ich will der mein Herze
schenken is notable for purity and directness of expression.
Another singer with whom the conductor worked and recorded is
Hilde Rössel-Majdan, a contralto of distinction, who proves
it by her Erbarme dich in which she is joined by the
violinist Walter Barylii, who also performs with great warmth.
This might be a suitable time to mention certain members of
the orchestra. It seems to be the case in this work that critics
often pass over the crucial contribution made by principals.
We’ve noted Barylli, but one should also listen out for Franz
Holotschek, the harpsichordist. He is crisp in ensembles, and
precise in articulation. He was an excellent pianist too. Karl
Reznicek is the splendid flautist – listen out for him initially
in the exchange between Jesus and the Evangelist, Da das
Jesus markete. Then there is the first oboe of Karl Mayerhofer,
the viola da gamba of Beatrix Reichert, the bassoonist Karl
Oehlberger, and organist Bruno Seidlhofer. All these, and many
more, contribute to the success of this performance.
Amongst the singers so far unmentioned one should certainly
note Eberhard Wachter, Petre Munteanu, and Richard Standen –
all are good.
This is a comprehensively successful set, for which no allowances
need be made on the grounds of ‘age’ or choices of instrument.
If it’s good, it’s good. It’s a reading of distilled violence,
corresponding warmth, nobly elevated, but deeply human. It is
richly characterised, cumulatively powerful, communicative,
and contemplative. It is well balanced, with regard to recitative,
chorus and orchestra. It has personable vocal soloists, including
an inimitable Evangelist.
This set has also been excellently transferred with extensive,
very thoughtful and interesting notes.