Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1729)
Gerd Türk – Evangelist; Amaryllis Dieltiens, Siri Karoline Thornhill (sopranos);
Tim Mead, Matthew White (counter-tenors); Julian Podger, Charles Daniels (tenors);
Peter Harvey (bass) - Christus
Kampen Boys Choir
The Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
rec. live, the Grote Kerk in Naarden, April 2010. DDD/DSD. Stereo/Surround.
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 32511 [3 CDs: 69:51 + 54:38 + 40:56]
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 collections.
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
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 sound.
A distinctive Matthew Passion and one that sheds fresh light on much of the