Recordings of the St Matthew Passion tend to be packaged as
prestige items, but Channel Classics have gone a step further
than most with this release. The slip-case contains a 3-gate
fold-out with the actual discs, each printed with a painting
of The Last Supper. There is also a hard-back book with the
libretto and bios, which is copiously illustrated with religious
art from down the years. The recording was made at the Grote
Kerk in Naarden, and is being marketed as a collaboration with
the Museum Catharijneconvent, a convent converted into a museum
of religious art, with all the illustrations coming from their
Fortunately, the quality of the performance and the recording
lives up to the expectations that the packaging creates. It
is one of those period instrument performances that finds an
ideal balance between the intimacy of the small ensemble and
the work's inherent drama. The soloists, both vocal and instrumental,
all have the necessary charisma to pull off their various roles,
but the mood remains plaintive throughout, and the solemn sense
of occasion is never compromised by any virtuoso displays.
The configuration of soloists and ensembles is complicated and
very possibly unique. To summarise the recent history of period
performance of this work: Joshua Rifkin proposed in the early
1980s that the work had originally been performed one to a part;
in other words, without any choirs. The idea was dismissed by
most scholars until he produced irrefutable evidence to back
his claim. There is a general feeling that in doing so, he spoiled
the work for everybody. It now means that if you are going to
use a choir of any size, you have to acknowledge that your performance
is diverting from 'authentic' performance practice and give
good reasons as to why that should be so.
This, presumably, is the reason for conductor Jos van Veldhoven's
liner essay 'A Single-Choir Passion?', in which he explains
the configuration used. His argument is that many of the choruses
pre-date the Passion and were written for other vocal configurations,
justifying - at least to some extent - the use of a single choir.
The basic set-up is two orchestras, positioned to the left and
right of the audience (the recordings were made at live performances),
a choir supporting the soloists, who together make up Coro I,
and four soloists acting as Coro II. He also has a boys choir
singing the ripieno in the opening chorus, and it seems
churlish to deny him that, especially when they sing so well.
In fact, the whole set-up, inauthentic as it may be, is more
than justified by the results. It means that there are enough
singers to cover all the parts, and that there is some drama
in the more energetic passages.
Drama but not weight. Everything about this recording is intimate
and immediate. The absence of vibrato - apart from at one or
two points from the higher soloists - suggests austerity, but
Veldhoven makes the most of his lithe ensemble to introduce
some rubato, occasionally subtle but also some grand gestures
too. The way he slows up the endings of choruses might be extreme
but always seems appropriate in context.
There are some interestingly distinctive voices among the soloists,
but in general they all keep a fairly even tone to aid the unity
of the whole. Gerd Türk articulates the role of the Evangelist
with valuable clarity. His timbre in the upper register is a
little strained, but that only adds to the discursive quality
of his performance. Peter Harvey also gives a light performance
as Christ, generally unemotional, but with the required presence
to maintain the focus of the drama. Tim Mead, the alto, has
more emotion and more timbral and dynamic variety than both.
Some of his arias include some swoops between the higher notes
that aren't to my taste, but nor do they stand out excessively.
Amaryllis Dieltiens as the soprano is the only female voice
among the (Coro I) soloists, so it is inevitable that she is
going to stand out a little. In fact, the child-like quality
of her voice fits very well. She has a fresh, open sound that
complements the obbligato instruments beautifully. Her vibrato
adds a touch of maturity to her performance, but while it is
always controlled, it does seem excessive.
I am listening to this recording in SACD stereo, which sounds
very good, but it is one of the first times that I have felt
the need for surround. According to a short note from Jared
Sacks in the liner, he has arranged the surround sound so that
Coro I is in the front channels and Coro II in the rear channels.
What a great idea! I'd really love to know what that sounds
like. In the stereo mix, we get Coro I in the left channel and
Coro II in the right, but it is not as pedantic as that suggests
and the choral sound in particular spreads out across the array.
For an ecclesiastical setting, the acoustic is surprisingly
dry. Not to excess - it still has warmth, but in general the
style of the recording favours detail over atmosphere.
A distinctive Matthew Passion then, and one that sheds fresh
light on much of the music. Despite the inclusion of a ripieno
choir and a boy's choir, this is still small-scale Bach. As
such, it owes much to the spirit of Joshua Rifkin's research,
if not his actual findings. Kudos to Channel Classics for their
sumptuous production standards. Not only is the packaging beautiful,
but the sound engineering is to a high standard and based on
some very original thinking about the potential of high definition