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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion), BWV 244
Mark Padmore (tenor) - Evangelist; Peter Harvey (bass) - Christus; Maria Espada (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (mezzo); Renate Arends (soprano); Barbara Kozelj (mezzo); Peter Gijsbertsen (tenor); Henk Neven (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir; National Children’s Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Iván Fischer
rec. live, 31 March-1 April 2012, Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
TV Director: Dick Kuijs
English, French, German, Spanish subtitles
Region Code: 0; Picture Format: 16:9/NTSC. Sound format: PCM Stereo. Dolby 5.0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 676 [2 DVDs: 174:00]

I believe I’m right in saying that the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s tradition of performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, was established as long ago as 1899 by Willem Mengelberg. Indeed. Mengelberg’s performance on Palm Sunday, 1939, which fell on 2 April that year, is preserved on Naxos. Though very much of its time and despite some cuts, it makes for very interesting listening (review).

In 2012 Palm Sunday fell on 1 April and these DVDs are taken from performances given that day and the preceding Friday.
Modern instruments are used here with the exception of a pair of recorders and a gamba which are employed at various points in the score. All four flautists use wooden instruments but these may be the instruments that these players normally use. The number of string players is reduced to chamber dimensions. The playing is uniformly stylish and pleasing. In particular there are some excellent obbligato contributions, notably from the oboist in ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ and from the violinist in ‘Erbarme dich’. Unless you’re resolute in insisting on hearing Bach played only on period instruments the fact that this is given on modern instruments should be no deterrence at all. Indeed, though I usually relish Bach on period instruments, I greatly enjoyed the instrumental side of this performance. It’s reassuring to find the music being ‘reclaimed’ so successfully by modern instruments.
The singing also gives much pleasure. Fischer has a fine team of aria soloists, among whom Ingebord Danz is outstanding. Every one of her solos is sung with lovely tone, a fine sense of line and great poise. Her ‘Erbarme dich’, moving and intense, is deeply satisfying and I was equally impressed by her account of ‘Buβ und Reu’. Soprano Maria Espada offers committed singing, not least in ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ which she sings most affectingly, deploying lovely silvery tone - the solo flute is superb, by the way. The other aria soloists all do well. Peter Gijsbertsen is forthright in ‘Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen’ and though he sounds somewhat taxed at times this is one of Bach’s less grateful arias to sing so allowances should be made.
Inevitably in the Matthäus-Passion attention centres on the singers who take the role of the Evangelist and Christus. Happily, this benefits from the participation of two of the best male Bach singers currently before the public. Peter Harvey is a dignified and expressive Christus. His voice seems to me to have just the right degree of weight - not too much as to preclude lightness of touch but sufficient to give presence and gravitas. He sings all his recitatives most intelligently and his performance of ‘Komm, süβes Kreuz’ is very fine indeed. Here, Harvey deploys an enviable legato. His expressive style and evenly produced voice give great pleasure; the gamba player supports him splendidly.
As the Evangelist, Mark Padmore is simply outstanding. He’s described in the booklet as a “compassionate” Evangelist. I wouldn’t dissent from that but I’d add that he’s compelling. His narration draws the listener in and he weights every syllable - and every pause - beautifully. His voice mixes plangency with an inner steel that is an ideal combination for an Evangelist. He’s often very moving, as for example in the recitative before ‘Erbarme dich’ when he relates the anguish of Peter after his denials of Christ. As the drama moves to its conclusion Padmore’s narration of the crucifixion itself and of the death of Christ is particularly intense and involving. For good measure he sings ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’, dispatching the demanding passagework with fluency. Padmore is surely one of the finest Evangelists of our day.
The chorus work is very good. The Netherlands Radio Choir numbers about forty singers and they are precise and accomplished in everything they do though occasionally I would have liked a bit more bite in the dramatic choruses - this may reflect the recording rather than the actual sound that they produce. Overall, however, Bach’s choral music is well served. The National Children’s Choir make a fine contribution. During the first chorus they are clustered round the conductor’s podium to sing and then they make their way discreetly to stand behind the adult choir from where they join in the chorales. Be it noted that they sing everything from memory!
Iván Fischer’s name is not the first one that would have come to mind as a Bach conductor. His performances and recordings of late Romantic and twentieth century music have garnered much praise - only recently Dan Morgan was greatly taken by his account of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with this same orchestra (review). Fischer paces Bach’s music very well and conducting the work is clearly an experience that means quite a lot to him. I’d describe his way with the music as essentially lyrical and reflective. I suppose that’s not inappropriate to the work, which is more contemplative and in many ways less dramatic than the St John Passion. Perhaps it’s Fischer’s style that to a degree lessens at times the impact of the choir as mentioned above. He eschews a baton, which is probably correct for this music, but I didn’t always feel his direction was completely incisive - some of the hand gestures are a bit wavery. This may be the reason why, in the recitative ‘Mein Jesus schweigt’, the staccato chords on oboes and gamba don’t seem absolutely together, though that’s an extremely rare instance of imprecision in this case. Overall, I found Fischer’s direction of the score was convincing and stylish.
The sound on these DVDs is very good and the camera work is good and unfussy. The camera direction is, in the best sense of the word, straightforward and the viewer’s attention is never distracted by gimmickry or by inapposite shots.
I enjoyed this version of Bach’s masterpiece very much. These DVDs are well worth seeking out.
John Quinn