J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion / The Netherlands Bach Society, Museum Catharijneconvent Hybrid SACD, SACD
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Audio CD, Hybrid SACD, SACD, 18 Apr 2011
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After the successful collectors item releases of the Christmas Oratorio (2003), St. John Passion (2005) and B minor Mass (2007) performed by the Netherlands Bach Society, Channel Classics now releases a new and very special recording of J.S. Bachs St. Matthew Passion. Once again, the recording has been made in collaboration with the Catharijne convent Museum of Utrecht, so that this edition of the St. Matthew Passion is accompanied by a richly illustrated text book. This enables the listener to experience the Passion both in music and images. The illustrations are drawn from the unique collection of the Catharijneconvent Museum, which possesses the largest collection of liturgical art in the Netherlands. According to conductor Jos van Veldhoven there are reasons enough to look at the score in another way than the traditional symmetrical structure. (...) It could very well be a single choir passion based on hierarchy, rather than equality or symmetry (...) I decided to create a spatial arrangement by having a separate stage for each group of musicians, placed some ten metres apart. Some members of the audience even sat between the two choirs, experiencing the dialogue in a very special manner.
Top customer reviews
This performance tells the Passion story in a very gentle and storytelling way. The Choirs are asymmetrical. Choir I is the soloist choir and Choir II, consisting of just 4 soloists is the ripieno choir. It is therefore not the traditional performance of a symmetrical double choir performance. The story is told in Choir I. Choir II reacts or poses questions. Choir I leads, and Choir II interrupts or offers commentary. When the two choirs sing together, Choir II acts as a ripieno group. Only once or twice is there full double choir writing, which according to Veldhoven creates an intensive operatic feeling. The chorales seem not to be just interludes but have a forward moving facilitating action on the story telling and the drama.
There is a very well considered and sustained momentum, with seamlessly connected recitatives, arias, and choruses. This performance illustrates well the drama of the work as well as being refined and reverential. It is a gentle very thoughtful spiritual reading of the music with some moments of high drama.
The soloists are generally excellent. Of special note is the Evangelist of Gerd Türk and the Jesus of Peter Harvey.
The 3 CD's are Hybrid SACD with a sumptuous sound best experienced in SACD multi-channel sound. All things considered this is a very good performance, which definitely keeps your attention focused on the story all the time, but I still prefer the Klemperer version and the 2nd Herreweghe version with Andreas Scholl.
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Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion for two groups of singers and instrumentalists (Coro I and Coro II--"choir," not "chorus"). In van Veldhoven's view, the two groups are not equal participants. Coro I tells the Biblical story, and Coro II (for the most part) comments on it. When the two sing and play together, Coro II largely doubles Coro I. "Rather than a symmetrical double-choir composition," van Veldhoven says, "the result is a complex, assymetrical single-choir Passion." This understanding is reflected in van Veldhoven's choice of performing forces and their layout. The singers in Coro I comprise five vocal soloists and eight ripienists; Coro II has only the four vocal soloists. In performance, the two groups were placed on widely separated stages--a perspective that is duplicated in the recording.
In an accompanying essay, van Veldhoven explains that his interpretation has been influenced by Daniel Melamed's 2005 book, Hearing Bach's Passions. After listening to this performance, I was moved to read the Melamed's volume, which I recommend without reservation to all lovers of Bach's passions. In a highly well written and accessible manner, Melamed illuminates many of the current issues surrounding the passions, including their performing forces, place in the liturgy, multiple versions, and what it means to listen to them today.
Van Veldhoven leads a superb team of vocalists and instrumentalists in a perfectly structured and paced performance. The movements flow inexorably from one to the next. The tempos maintain both the spiritual and dramatic character of the work. The performing forces provide both weight and clarity. Nothing is quirky. Not a single element is out of place. All the soloists are excellent. Peter Harvey shines as Jesus and in the bass arias in Coro I. Gerd Turk is a fine evangelist. The recorded sound is vivid and lifelike. (I listen in SACD stereo.)
The recording's presentation is the cherry on the sundae. Like the Netherlands Bach Society's recordings of the St. John Passion St John Passion (Hybr), Christmas Oratorio Bach: Christmas Oratorio, and B-Minor Mass , this one is presented in cooperation with the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. The three CDs are accompanied by a 192-page book that contains essays about the work and the performance, complete text and English translation, and extensive illustrations of the Passion drawn from the museum's collection.
Classics Today rates this performance 10/10 for artistic and sound quality. Its reviewer writes that "this exceptionally well balanced, thoughtfully paced reading, vividly brought to life by the performers and recording team, deserves a place among the reference versions." BBC Music Magazine calls it "an astonishingly effective version" and has named it choral CD of the month. Gramophone (June 2011) describes it as a "sophisticated, incisive and emotionally graphic account" and praises its "supreme recorded sound." It is now my number one choice. It really makes me wish that I could be in Naarden some Good Friday.
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