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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (first performed 1727) [163:23]
Julian Prégardien (tenor) - Evangelist
Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (baritone) - Jesus
Soloists for the arias and recitatives: Karina Gauvin (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (mezzo); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Michael Nagy (baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Regensburger Domspatzen,
Concerto Köln/Peter Dijkstra
rec. 12, 17 February 2013, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Full texts in German without English translations
BR KLASSIK 900508 [3 CDs: 69:10 + 55:08 +39:05]

Following their 2013 release of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (review) the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks under artistic director Peter Dijkstra have joined forces with Regensburger Domspatzen and Concerto Köln for this live recording of the St. Matthew Passion. For this performance, recorded in concert in February 2013 Dijkstra employs elements of historically informed performance practice but uses a reasonably large choir. I have seen a TV broadcast of one of these Herkulessaal concerts and sharing the same stage the two choirs can be seen to include twenty boy singers. The period instrument Concerto Köln divide down the centre into two orchestras with around twenty players in each segment.
The St. Matthew Passion was given its first performance on Good Friday 1721 at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. Bach employs texts by Picander that are taken from the St. Matthew Gospel. It was the twenty year old Felix Mendelssohn who conducted a performance in 1829 at the Berlin Singakademie finally revealing this as a masterwork that had lain hidden for around a century. Mendelssohn used a heavily cut and edited version and employed a 150-strong choir.
On this recording the authoritative voice of Julian Prégardien as the Evangelist is in condition with bright and vividly clear diction. As Jesus, Karl-Magnus Fredriksson’s firm, dark-tinged baritone is suitably serious. I especially enjoyed the alto arias Buß und Reu with the benefit of a lovely flute accompaniment and Erbarme dich, mein Gott with an exquisite violin obbligato. Both arias are movingly sung by mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger who demonstrates her splendid dark timbre and clear diction. Karina Gauvin sings the hauntingly moving arias Blute nur, du liebes Herz! and Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben with disarming sensitivity - brightly expressive yet vulnerable. I found especially moving the duet So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen for the soprano and alto with choir all combining to moving effect. Impressive in the bass aria arias notably Gerne will ich mich bequemen and Am Abend, da es kuhle war is baritone Michael Nagy. He sings with presence and deep reverential expression. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt is bright and clear conveying a profound respect for the text. He is particularly engaging in his aria Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen. The well rehearsed Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Regensburger Domspatzen deliver fresh and expressive choral singing throughout – they are wonderfully in unison. The Concerto Köln is thoroughly at one with the music, playing with engaging freshness. Director Peter Dijkstra pulls everything together although I must say that the chosen speeds felt a touch measured at times.
For recordings of the St. Matthew Passion I generally favour the sparer forces found on versions that use authentic instruments and employ aspects of period informed performance practice. My first choice is still the stunning and highly engaging Paul McCreesh directing just eight singers Deborah York, Julia Gooding, Magdalena Kozena, Susan Bickley, Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist, Peter Harvey and Stephan Loges with the Gabrieli Players. McCreesh was recorded at Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark 2002 on Archiv Produktion.
For those wanting a recording on modern instruments with generously sized choral forces my unequivocal first choice is Karl Richer and soloists: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Irmgard Seefried, Antonia Fahberg, Kieth Engen, Hertha Töpper, Ernst Haefliger and Max Proebstl, the Munich Chorknaben, Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra on ‘The Originals’ Archiv Produktion. Recorded in 1967 at the Herkulessaal, Munich in the traditional Bach performance style of the day Richter demonstrates that he is a master Bach conductor. He provides an invigorating musical and often spiritual experience.
This version of the Passion is beautifully performed and aptly captures the sacred drama of the score. Without a weak link Dijkstra has put together an excellent group of soloists, choral and period instrument forces. The accompanying booklet contains full texts in German but is curiously without English translations although there is an essay in English. The engineers have excelled with the choral and orchestral forces being excellently balanced. This is an extremely desirable recording that I will play often.
Michael Cookson