Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion BWV244 (1727)
Hugues Cuénod (tenor) – The Evangelist
Heinz Rehfuss (bass-baritone) - Jesus
Eberhard Wachter (bass) - Judas
Magda Laszlo (soprano)
Hilde Rössel-Majdan (contralto)
Petre Munteanu (tenor)
Richard Standen (bass)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Vienna Academy Choir/Hermann Scherchen
rec. June-July 1953, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
No texts.
TAHRA TAH 701-703 [3 CDs: 66:10 + 66:58 + 66:46]

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 Vienna.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

A comprehensively successful set.