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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion (1729) [198:41]
Ernst Haefliger (tenor) – Evangelist
Irmgard Seefried (soprano)
Antoine Fahberg (soprano)
Hertha Töpper (alto)
Kieth Engen (bass)
Max Proebstl (bass)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bass)
Munich Bach Choir and Munich Bach Orchestra/Karl Richter
rec. June-August 1958, Herkulessaal, Munich
No texts
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO126 [3 CDs: 198:41]

Karl Richter played the harpsichord in the 1950 recording of excerpts from the Mass in B Minor directed in Leipzig by Günther Ramin. Ramin held the same position at St Thomas that Bach had done. That Richter absorbed much from his eminent but now somewhat overshadowed teacher seems self-evident from the famous studio recording Richter gave of the Mass in 1961, a cornerstone of the LP library. The stylistic lineage is perhaps even more clear from the recordings both men made of the St Matthew Passion.

Ramin’s was severely abridged with many omissions – some, indeed many, standard Leipzig ‘cuts’ at the time - which enables the work to fit on two CDs. Made in 1941 with the St Thomas Choir, the Gewandhaus Orchestra and some of Germany’s leading singers, it remains a remarkable document. It’s clear from the approach adopted by Richter in his famous recording of 1958 that the expressive balances and stylistic approach explored by Ramin had been securely passed on – tight rhythms but with relaxed tempos (sometimes very relaxed) with crisp, small ensembles, and a richly warm emotional engagement. His opening chorus which, remarkably enough, is slower than Mengelberg’s is also a full minute slower than – but expressively congruent with – Ramin’s 1941 reading. Thus it is for much of this 1958 recording, one that by common consent eclipses the other studio and video recordings Richter left behind. With a more appropriate sense of articulation and a roster of first-rank soloists largely in fresh voice this is unquestionably the finest of his interpretations of the work on disc and one that still stands comparison with most others of the LP era.

In Ernst Haefliger he had one of the great Evangelists on disc and the enormous advantage of Fischer-Dieskau’s bass solos. Irmgard Seefried is a splendid soprano, though not always quite ideally steady, and Hertha Töpper the reliable alto. His well-drilled Munich instrumental and choral forces are resilient and attentive to his demands, some of which can be rigorous and indeed onerous, when it comes to certain tempi decisions. But all these decisions are far preferable here than in later recordings.

As Pristine’s Andrew Rose observes in his brief producer’s note, this early stereo was excellently recorded. Light ‘warming’ of the sound has been judiciously applied and some reverberation too: this won’t be to all tastes, and certainly not those who prefer more of a facsimile of the original sound – in which case one of the many reissues, not least DG’s own, will be the preferred option. However those new to this classic recording will enjoy the sympathetic restoration here.

Jonathan Woolf



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