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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion (1736 version)
Evangelist – Werner Güra (tenor)
Christ – Johannes Weisser (bass)
Sunhae Im, Christina Roterberg (sopranos)
Bernarda Fink, Marie-Claude Chappuis (altos)
Topi Lehtipuu, Fabio Trümpy (tenors)
Konstantin Wolff, Arttu Kataja (basses)
RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. August-September 2012, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Package includes 2 hybrid SACDs plus 1 DVD, Rediscovering the Saint Matthew Passion [46:00]
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 802156.58 SACD [78:51 + 80:12]

So much about this new recording of the St Matthew Passion is so good. The solo singing is top-notch throughout, led by an ideally sensitive and beautifully textured evangelist from Werner Güra. He is at the peak of his form here, no doubt helped by his huge experience in lieder singing, and the golden beauty of his voice marries brilliantly with his gift for storytelling. Johannes Weisser also makes an excellent Christ, and I loved the way the string halo surrounds his utterances, combining delicacy and beauty with subtlety and devotion, something particularly evident in the Last Supper sequence. Sunhae Im makes a beautifully flexible sound for Ich will dir mein Herze schenken and Aus Liebe, and Topi Lehtipuu manages successfully to combine beauty with anguish in his great Part One sequence O schmerz… Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen. Bernarda Fink is wonderful in both Buβ und Reu and the central Erbarme dich, and she is convincingly humane, almost mediatory in the dialogue with the chorus at Sehet Jesus hat die Hand. Konstantin Wolff also sounds magnificent in Komm, süβes Kreuz, accompanied very convincingly by a lute - though you get the version with gamba as a bonus appendix. René Jacobs, of whom I am by no means an uncritical fan, is on his best behaviour. He draws out many of the subtleties and nuances of the text through his shaping of the musical line. While his tempi are on the fast side - helping to explain his almost unique achievement in fitting the whole Passion onto only two discs - there is nothing wilful or perverse in his take on the work, such as often marred his Mozart recordings. The instrumentalists are outstanding, and the obbligati for each aria sound spectacular.
 
It is such a shame, therefore, that the entire project is hobbled by its central idea. It is well known that Bach wrote the St Matthew Passion for two groups of singers and players who, at times, answer one another throughout the work. The most obvious example is in the opening chorus when one choir calls “Sehet!” and the other answers “Wen?”, and most stereo recordings place one of the groups prominently in the right speaker and the other prominently in the left. Jacobs argues, quite correctly, that this left/right arrangement would have been impossible in the Thomaskirche for the work’s first performances: instead one group would have been at the front of the church and the other would have been at the back. So he tries to reproduce this by having the majority of the music played and sung where most listeners would perceive to be the “normal” part of the soundscape, but having the second chorus’ and orchestra’s music played at a recessed distance, as if the listener were sitting in the front row of the Thomaskirche during a performance.
 
It’s undoubtedly an interesting idea, and two essays in the booklet argue for historical, musical and even theological reasons that it is the right arrangement for a recording. The all too obvious problem, however, is that, in practice, it just doesn’t work. The distancing of one group simply makes them sound far off and, more often than not, inaudible, and it actually serves to distance the listener from participating in the unfolding spiritual drama rather than involving him more deeply in it. Those booklet essays are very clever, but to me it sounded as though they were trying all too hard to convince even themselves.
 
A perfect example of these problems at their worst comes during Arttu Kataja’s two great bass arias, which he seems to be singing from the back of a distant cave. It sounds gloopy and indistinct, and I found it enormously frustrating to listen to. This happens again and again: poor Fabio Trümpy, for example, turns up for only one aria (Geduld!) but he sounds so recessed that he might as well not have bothered. Exactly the same is true for Marie-Claude Chappuis’s Können Tränen. Hang authenticity and religious justification: I just want to be able to hear it. Similarly, Christina Roterberg sings beautifully in the opening number of Part Two, but the chorus that sing with here are so far away as to sound almost like a G&S Parody group. It’s dreadful and, perversely when you read about Jacobs’ intentions, it ruins any sense of religious devotion that he may have been trying to capture.
 
Something has gone wrong when considerations like this take precedence over the most basic consideration of all, which is to make Bach’s music audible and to do so in a compellingly moving way. Even the choral moments, sung with such warmth by the RIAS Kammerchor, can come across as wilful and unnecessarily contrived at times. The bonus DVD, which explains further Jacobs’ intentions and justifications, left me profoundly unconvinced. Its subtitles are unreadably tiny, by the way, another negative.
 
I fully appreciate that this experiment will appeal to many who wish to explore this new take on “authenticity”, and many will wish to hear it just to experiment with the effects it brings out in their speakers. But for me the technical aspects came to usurp the musical ones, and that must consign it to the “heroic failure” pile. For me, it is Herreweghe’s 1998 recording that remains the best of all, combining period elements with devotional warmth and an outstanding set of soloists (including Güra as the tenor soloist), chorus and orchestra. Jacobs needs to stick to what he is good at and put musical values above pseudo-historical experiments.
 
Simon Thompson

I should make it clear that I was listening in 2.0 stereo and not in multi-channel SACD sound. I am told by others that Jacobs' distancing effects work much better in SACD, but I cannot comment on that.
 


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