RECORDINGS of Leith Hill Festival events are rather quite rare today. For that reason alone this album is a revelation. The program on this double cd set is historically meaningful.
I'll quote Kerryn Chan, in an interesting article for Inkpot.com : "The St.Matthew Passion was written to celebrate Good Friday, as the story being told in this work only leads up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The story teller here is the Evangelist, Saint Matthew, watching scenes from Jesus' life unfold before his eyes like an invisible person, privy to conversations with other biblical/historical characters."
It could be safe to add that this work is undoubtedly the greatest realization of JS Bach (1685-1750), a chapter in the evolution and history of music. Sources of the work are to be found in the Lutheran tradition. It was premiered in 1729 (some studies show that an earlier version of the work possibly took place in 1727). In a captivating article about the work, Bernard D. Sherman noted that "the St.Matthew's complex mix of time frames is part of what places it squarely outside the realm of Baroque opera," keenly indicating that "in the process, the work regularly alternates between different time frames." The work is unique, even among Bach's prolific output, and it surpasses his own St.John Passion in many areas.
Vaughan Williams's rendering of the Passion truly is an interpretation in the factual sense of the word. The fact that the work was sung in English, that a few parts are omitted, and the choice of instrumentation--with a larger-than-average chorus--is subject to debate, should not mar the inherent beauty and amplitude of this account. This performance addresses the work in light of a different perspective. The St.Matthew Passion, more perhaps than any other work from Bach, is prone to (calculated) interpretation. To play the Passion is to make a study in vocal and instrumental music. Every new recording deepens the knowledge--and brings new light--about the work.
In Musical Opinion Magazine, Mr. Robert Matthew-Walker declared : "We are privileged to be able to hear such a reading as is given here ; there is an atmosphere, a genuine sense of musical communion that is often lost in our so-called authentic performances. From the first bars, the listener is drawn into an account of an imperishable masterpiece that is compelling, moving and wholly convincing." No need to say, i fully agree with those remarks ; without question, this is a pivotal performance of the Passion as well as one of the most important moments in the musical life of the 20th century.
The British label PEARL (Pavilion Records) has a big number of historical recordings in their catalog, including stuff performed by great singers, conductors and legendary composers. Vaughan Williams's direction of singers (and musicians) was of a rather good level of expertise, in spite of the occasional critics who were unimpressed by his conducting in orchestral music. His recording of his own Fourth Symphony, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is staggering, and his recording of his own Fifth with the LPO (from 1952) further upholds a positive opinion. He began to conduct the Passion in the early 1930's and soon made his name as one of England's finest lecturers and conductors in touch with the choral works of Bach. The St.Matthew and St.John Passions, as well as the B minor Mass and several cantatas, became "trademarks" among the programmes at the Leith Hill Music Festival. This recording, caught live on tape in March 1958, is unique (the concert was recorded at Dorking, just a few months prior to the composer's death).
I'll quote, again, Mr. Matthew-Walker : "The opportunity of hearing a great composer perform music by another great composer is very rare today." Beyond doubt, this account of the Passion is a remarkable document ; it will remain a very special, unique case vis-a-vis the sum of recordings the work has received.
The St.Matthew has had its lot of excellent recordings--among them Leonhardt, Gardiner, Rilling, Harnoncourt, Herreweghe and also Bernstein (N.Y.). Some people will tell you, as well, that we can't possibly ignore Karl Richter's renditions, notably the one with Ernst Haefliger as the Evangelist. I personally like very much his account with Peter Schreier--a finely recorded, "straight" version which further explores the dramatic depths of this masterwork. It's been recorded in 1979 and got the participation of household names like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Dame Janet Baker. Also to be underlined, Otto Klemperer leading the Philharmonia (on EMI), with Peter Pears as the tenor, is seen as a key recording. The live 1939 Mengelberg, with Concertgebouw, is justly acknowledged as legendary and certainly pertains to the greatest. There's an outstanding 1954 recording by Furtwangler which i haven't heard ; it is described by many connoiseurs as "powerful stuff" and is definitely recommended for the Bach aficionados. Koussevitzky, with the Boston Symphony, introduced a magnificent--although non-traditional--performance of the Passion (live recording, March 1937). The latter is an essential document, if only from historical perspectives. Sir David Willcocks did also produce the St.Matthew Passion in the English language (with Bach Choir), giving very good results ; another good British recording features the acclaimed King's College singers under the adept direction of Stephen Cleobury. I am pleased to mention that the album (either full performance or highlights of the Passion) by Geza Oberfrank (Hungarian State, released on Naxos) is a quite good effort. Sound is superb and, most importantly, performance is very nice. The playing throughout is warm and sympathetic.
Any sort of "rating" is irrelevant here, for such an archive as preeminent and essential as this Vaughan Williams/Bach interpretation can't be judged within the common limits of "sound and show." Technically, sonics are not that bad for a vintage semi-professional mono recording--if only slightly congested, here and there, at the frequency extremes. Upon listening we soon discover that the forces involved were considerable, primarily on the vocal front. The members were pretty well rehearsed, musicians and singers ; the soloists have done a very good job as well, in particular the soprano who sang quite amiably. In essence, the rendition is very English--but also very Bach ; the spiritual qualities of the content are revelatory. This disc showcases "in your face" the sagaciousness of a host of people who really had an affection for the music of the old German master.
So we have here a masterpiece from Bach, made in England. The prestige of the work is only equaled by the inspirational grasp of the conductor and the amazing (although not flawless) result of the performers. This album contains more a "morceau d'histoire" than just the solemn realization of a great work. It proves uncommon testimony to the dedication and reverence a modern composer had for one of his recurrent sources of inspiration and favorite choral music. *****