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J.S. Bach: Matthäus-Passion

J.S. Bach: Matthäus-Passion

29 Jan 2010

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Disc 2
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Disc 3
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars 1 review
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understated Brilliance 18 Jan. 2012
By R. Gerard - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
This latest reading of the Saint Matthew Passion by Sigiswald Kuijken is one in a line of so-called one-voice-per-part (OVPP) recordings. The practice of using OVPP is one Bach almost certainly used to perform the vast majority of his concerted vocal works, including the cantatas. On a practical level, Bach barely had the forces to sustain large, multi-voice-per-part choirs (save for some special occasions and holiday masses). On an aesthetic level, Bach's north German contemporaries and musical forbears seemed to have preferred the OVPP approach, given the prevalence of counterpoint and the clarity of line OVPP can provide. Today, performing Bach OVPP is a practice reintroduced to modern audiences by musicologist Joshua Rifkin (recommend his 1980s recording of the B-Minor Mass), popularized by Andrew Parrott (recommend his book _The Essential Bach Choir_), and applied to by various conductors like Konrad Junghanel, John Butt, Marc Minkowski, sometimes Philippe Herreweghe (see his latest recording of motets), and Paul McCreesh, who provided us with the first Saint Matthew using the OVPP approach. It was controversial. Though it had it's strong points, namely in the skill of the evangelist, the recording lacked drama and forces sounded anemic. It was subsequently bettered by John Butt's recording with the Dunedin Consort for Lynn Classics, notable for recreating the exact instrumental forces needed for Bach's 1742 performance, for example, a harpsichord continuo for the second choir. And I daresay that Kuijken's new recording comes out on top.

It is the kind of recording that lets Bach's music speak for itself. Dunedin Consort is to be praised for the urgent narration of the evangelist, but Kuijken takes a different, understated approach with is a bit more convincing. It is ecclesiastical work on a serious subject. A recording which seeks to emulate Bach's original forces (sans the voices of boy trebles and altos) does best to also emulate the mood and atmosphere for which Bach composed.

The mood here is somber, but it is not boring. It is contemplative, but not brooding. Apart from a homily, I could imagine this passion being the centerpiece of the Lutheran Good Friday liturgy. Bach's music here is clearly defined by Kuijken and his forces without sounding anemic. A huge contributing factor to this is reverberation of the recording, which emulates the sound of the interior of a large church. From the opening bars you can hear the forces are smaller than what you may be used to hearing, but the sound carries, utilizing the "sound-space" and acoustics nicely, as one might imagine it may have sounded in the St. Thomas Church in the early 18th century.

Critics have called McCreesh's reading fussy and too light where it should sound full. I rather agree. That is not the case here. The opening chorus sounds just right, small forces which can fill a whole church. The dialogue between the "Faithful" and "Zion" is effective and nicely spaced. We must remember that the first chorus fits within the "dialogue cantata" tradition. The choral interjections in "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen" use the acoustics of the recording space to sound urgent, full and explosive. "Sind Blitze, sind Donner" is still a rolling, thundering fugue to the limit that it still sounds appropriate and believable as a church piece.

Regarding the soloists themselves, the evangelist tries to make no huge waves in vocalizing emotion, nor does Jesus. Rather the beauty and complexity of Bach's music, again, speaks for itself. The anti-religious Richard Dawkins once exalted the aria "Mache dich, mein Herze rein" (the last aria Bach scored for the same baritone who sings the part of Jesus) as a piece he admired greatly, as one must not be religious to appreciate the beauty of another human's [Bach's] genius. I get that feeling here.

While I admire that conductors of Bach are eager to put their stamp on interpretation on his works, it is refreshing to hear a recording of [in my opinion] his magum-opus that is within the spirit and intention of Bach -- who, like his north-German contemporaries, wrote not for posterity or a mention in modern musical-history books and classical record labels, but for the immediate concern, for a piece of contemplative music for a religious service.

I would highly recommend this recording. While my ears still favor above all else the St. Matthew Passion recorded by Philippe Herreweghe in the late 1990's for Harmonia Mundi, when I wish for a recording that perhaps most faithfully recreates Bach's sound-world, this Kuijken recording is the one I will turn to.

Perhaps Konrad Junghanel with Cantus Coelln, or Andrew Parrott with his Taverner Consort will be next to record this momentous work?
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