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Magnificent (when it's not ponderous)
on 17 December 2013
This fifty year old recording has so much to admire and so much which exasperates. Its qualities sometimes flip over into being its defects. In judging it here, I am not interested in whether it lives up to the ideals of modern 'historically informed' performances. I am interested in judging it as effective music-making in its own right, and whether it presents the drama and emotion of Bach's magnificent achievement in a manner that is interesting and convincing.
Klemperer made this recording before the modern tendency towards increasing speeds led to a mania for dashing which too often trivialises and undermines the music. Trivialising the music is precisely what Klemperer does not do. His slow speeds allow the music to breathe, and allow everything that is in the music to be revealed. He takes the whole thing extremely seriously, and this is a virtue, because the St Matthew Passion is a deeply serious work, not something to be skipped and danced through. Sometimes, however, this virtue is taken too far, and whilst in general Klemperer maintains, even at slow speeds, a definite forward-moving momentum, there are certain things about the performance which are impossibly ponderous. Ponderous not because of slowness, but because of a failure of momentum, or because of stodgy articulation. Especially painful are the sleepy continuo bass and plodding harpsichord. The final chorus of Part 1 must have been recorded on a bad day, because everyone seems to be heavily sedated, directionless, uncertain: it sags terribly.
Where things are not hopelessly ponderous, Klemperer is magnificent. The opening and final choruses have all the grandeur and seriousness inherent in the music, fully realised. Most arias come off extremely well - slow, yes, but always going somewhere, always purposeful.
The singers are not all to my taste, but taste in singers is a very individual matter, and you will perhaps like them all. I don't like Peter Pears's strangulated evangelist, but admire his subtle artistry. Fischer-Dieskau was once told by Klemperer 'you give too much' and admitted years later to never having understood what Klemperer had meant. Here he does often 'give too much' - I find his singing horribly overwrought. I am all for an operatic style in this work, but great artistry does not embrace the sort of exaggerations of tone and expression which Fischer-Dieskau indulges in here. I have rarely been enchanted by Schwarzkopf's warbling vibrato, which we get quite a lot of here. She too 'gives too much'. A simpler style would suit the music better - but not the blankly expressionless style favoured by many modern singers in this part. A middle course is needed. The one really intolerably awful contribution here is Gedda's. His yelping, straining manner and his often vague approach to exact pitch are simply excruciating. This is not, I think, simply a matter of my taste, but rather of bad singing. It's a great pity because in other recordings he sings exquisitely. Something was not right with him during these sessions. Christa Ludwig sings gloriously as always ('Erbarme dich' is a highlight), as does Walter Berry. The choirs are satisfactory but I would have preferred crisper articulation. This probably wasn't available in 1962: we had still to wait for John Eliot Gardiner to come along and make choirs give their best.
From a technical point of view, the recording is in decent stereo, typical of its time, with sensible layout of the complex forces, and a strange and pleasing aural-visual illusion which seems to place the trebles higher in space than the other performers. The CD transfer has revealed some really horrible tape edits, most often towards the ends of the evangelist's narrations, when his final words 'und sprach:' or 'und sprachen:' are spliced crassly onto the rest. A small point, but very distracting and irritating.
I have not yet found a completely, uniformly satisfactory and enjoyable recording of the St Matthew Passion. I strongly recommend this recording, despite my many reservations and gripes, because Klemperer gives a mighty account of a mighty work; because apart from Gedda's yowling contribution the singing is generally very fine; and because we need a massive antidote to the increasingly jaunty trivialisation of the feeling and drama behind the notes. With Klemperer 'massive' is precisely what you get. I love it.