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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [163:43]
Guy de Mey (tenor) - Evangelist; Peter Kooy (bass) - Christus; Barbara Schlick (soprano); Kai Wessel (counter-tenor); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Cappella Breda; Netherlands Bach Boys' Choir
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra/Ton Koopman
rec. June 1992, Nederlands Hervormde Kerk Oudkarspel, Netherlands. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 646751 [3 CDs: 70:21 + 41:50 + 52:32]

Here is a reissue of Baroque specialist, Ton Koopman's, recording from over twenty years ago of the Matthew Passion. Also available on Erato 673616 (alternatively 5046 65560-2 or 2292-45814-2) as part of the set which includes the B Minor Mass, it's one of two in the current catalogue by Koopman; the other is more recent (2006), on Challenge 72232.
This is vintage, classic Koopman: Tempi that never linger, orchestral textures that accord privilege to clarity and insight over effect and superb, beautifully articulated, solo vocal lines. Koopman's lucidity might appear a little too detached or cool for some listeners who are used to responding to the emotional charge of Bach's Passions. One of Koopman's greatest strengths is his grasp of architecture: of the unfolding of the passion events; of the relative roles and interactions of the soloists and 'crowds'; of the inevitability of events in a musical - as opposed to a Biblical - sense.
A logical consequence of this is a performance that's neither perfunctory nor devoid of emotion. It knows where it's going. It bases one event on foreknowledge of what happens next. As a result there is a certain businesslike feel though it’s never perfunctory.
This might have been just what Bach intended. It was probably how the work was performed in the composer's lifetime. The congregation knew the story intimately. They appreciated the import of each development. The Matthew Passion is not an opera. Based on the premise that Christ's sacrifice was to the good and his suffering unavoidable, Koopman's account seems to be aiming for a removal of the lugubrious. While not joyful, its tone and tenor are almost celebratory and affirmative. The positive sentiment with which such numbers as "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen" [CD 1 tr.28] are performed is wholly appropriate.
Koopman does not emphasise the pared down nature of a HIP (authentic) performance in the way that the recent recording by Butt and the Dunedin Consort (Linn CKD 313) does - although the latter is hardly 'faceless' or 'cold'. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra is not a period instrument ensemble, after all.
One will be struck immediately by the presence, the persuasiveness, the expressive qualities of the vocal soloists: soprano Barbara Schlick is full of 'radiance' as she commands a studied ability to employ restraint. Tenor Guy de Mey makes an excellent and dignified Evangelist with every bit as much gravitas as bass Peter Kooy's Christus. Counter-tenor Kai Wessel, tenor Christoph Prégardien and bass Klaus Mertens all distinguished themselves on Koopman's superb cycle of Bach cantatas. In all cases there is a pleasing balance between the judiciously dramatic and the penetratingly expositional. There’s nothing over-declamatory or superfluously rhetorical even at the great moments such as "Erbarme Dich" [CD 2 tr.15] and "Komm seußes Kreuz" [CD 3 tr.14].
Like the singers, the instrumental soloists are successful in removing any unwelcome emphasis on 'interpretation'. Indeed Koopman's entire conception is directed towards 'neutral' music-making. For those familiar with Koopman's splendid cycle of Bach cantatas on Challenge, the tightness and cleanness of the choruses and other more expansive numbers will come as no surprise. The sequence, "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen", "Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden", "Und siehe, einer aus denen" [CD 1 trs. 35, 36, 37], for example, is pithy, distinctive and full of impact. There isn't the spitting pungency of more dramatic performances. Indeed, Koopman makes his impact by contrast: the staccato passages are all the more shocking as Christ is captured because of the lambent, controlled, gentler lines which surround them. Again, Koopman relies on context and contrast to arrive at an almost magical effect.
The acoustic is just right. There is the right degree of responsiveness - the right resonance. There’s also an excellent emphasis on the soloists: every word is audible and every note counts. As with Koopman's other set on Challenge, some may even feel that the vocal soloists are too loud relative to the ensemble and orchestra. The result is a personal, forward and intimate Matthew Passion, which is well worth a listen - even in a crowded field of almost ninety recordings.
The physical booklet that is distributed with the three-CD set is minimal; it has little more than a plain list of the performers and tracks. It suggests that something fuller (the texts at least) can be found at the Warner Classics website; that is not the case. On the other hand, this set is available at an amazingly low price. Its pedigree is of greater consideration than its age: Koopman's earlier Matthew Passion remains a treasure.
Mark Sealey