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.
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