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Of the two extant Bach passions, the Matthew is probably more famous and popular than the John, a popularity it has enjoyed since Mendelssohn first revived it in the middle of the nineteenth century. It has to stand not only as one of Bach's greatest works, but also, I would say, as one of the highest points of European cultural achievement. Whether or not you're Christian (or even religious), listening to this will make you feel religious about music, if nothing else, and it certainly brings out the profundity and pure human feeling (and the narrative tension and drama) of the gospel text. Needless to say, there are a huge number of recordings; this review is concerned with both the DVD and CD of Koopman's performance in March 2005.
For my taste, Koopman is the best of the greats of Bach choral conducting; his tempi are suitably brisk, but do not attain the (for me) sometimes disturbingly fleet tempi of Gardiner and Herreweghe. In this performance, the tempi are sometimes a bit faster than in his earlier recording. Overall, I would prefer this one, primarily because of the choice of performers: Joerg Duermueller and Ekkehard Abele are better in their roles (Duermueller has to be one of the best evangelists I've heard), and Cornelia Samuelis gives a performance that is far more historically sensitive and appropriate for the religious nature of this music than Barbara Schlick in Koopman's earlier version; her performance of 'Aus Liebe', and the duet with Bogna Bartosz ('So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen') are among the highlights of this recording. Here, there's a female singer (Bogna Bartosz) for the alto parts, where earlier Koopman used a countertenor (Kai Wessel); they're both excellent, as are both singers who do the bass arias and solo parts. I have to say that I prefer Christoph Prégardien in the earlier recording to Paul Agnew's sometimes overstated and excessively dramatic renderings in this one. I'd go with the new version mainly for the better evangelist and soprano, and a somewhat better Jesus.
Comparing Koopman to other conductors, of the historically-informed-performance crowd, the big names seem to be Herreweghe Bach; St. Matthew Passion - Herreweghe (3-cd Box) La Chapelle Royale, Paris and Gardiner Bach: St. Matthew Passion / Rolfe Johnson, Bonney, von Otter, Chance, Crook; Gardiner; Gardiner, both of whom are, for my taste, occasionally a bit too brisk for the Matthew. I have a further beef with Gardiner that people who don't know German might not notice: some of his singers (Anthony Rolfe Johnson included) have a German pronunciation that does not sound quite right to me, as a person who has spent a long time studying German literature. Gardiner's approach works a lot better, for my taste, in the John, and for that, I find it's really hard to choose between him and Koopman. In general, I don't listen much to the older performances on modern instruments, but I have to say that Peter Schreier (sadly apparently no longer available) and Helmuth Rilling Bach: St. Matthew Passion both deserve a mention as outstanding performances (of which I prefer Schreier); Klemperer's passion is one that has clearly survived the horrors of WWII, and while it's an outstanding artistic document of it's own time, it does not, for me, quite represent what I feel Bach's music should.
I should note that, having followed some of the scholarly debate between Rifkin, Parrott and Koopman on whether one voice per part or a larger choir is more appropriate for this work, I am convinced that Bach's own practice was (at least sometimes) more likely to have been one voice per part than the modern big choir. That being said, they key to a recording is whether or not it works: if the singers doing each voice don't really hold up, then a OVPP recording won't match one with a full choir; this is the reason why I prefer the Koopman to McCreesh's recording Bach: St Matthew Passion (Matthäus-Passion) (though in all fairness, I should say I've only heard clips of the latter), since, although the clarity and general impression of OVPP does sound great in the choral pieces, I find myself getting a bit put off by the style of too many of McCreesh's singers in the solos. And though McCreesh's instrumental forces are excellent, like Koopman's, his tempi are occasionally a little slow (I know, I'm very picky!). Also, the size of the choir really makes much more of a difference in a live concert--and the placement of singers (Bach's singers would generally have been up in the galleries, with the organist, and actually behind most of the congregation) is also a major factor; since I tend to listen to music on my headphones, the effects are slightly lost for me.