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Issue 93
This article was last updated on
16 February, 2001

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Amsterdam Baroque/Ton Koopman (Erato)

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  • Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

    Barbara Bonney · Ann Monoyios sopranos
    Anne Sofie von Otter · Michael Chance altos
    Howard Crook · Anthony Rolfe-Johnson tenors
    Olaf Bär · Andreas Schmidt baritone
    Cornelius Hauptmann bass

    Monteverdi Choir · London Oratory Junior Choir
    The English Baroque Soloists
    directed by John Eliot Gardiner

    on period instruments

    Includes full libretto and notes with translations in German, French, English and Italian.
    A single disc of arias and choruses from this recording is available on 429 773-2

    ARCHIV PRODUKTION (DG) 427 648-2
    3 CDs [1:57:24] full-price

    by Nat Tunbridge

    Bach's St Matthew's Passion has been hailed as one of the supreme creative achievements of mankind, on par in the musical world with Wagner's Ring cycle and the Beethoven Symphonies. Numerous recordings of the work are available today, including famous sets by Furtwängler, Solti, Bernstein, Leonhardt, Richter and Karajan, among others. What, then, is so remarkable about this - rather expensive - 1988 Archiv production? The answer lies, in large part, with the conductor.

    John Eliot Gardiner - Photo by Sheila Rock/DGG Sir John Eliot Gardiner (left; photo by Sheila Rock/DGG) is a Bach crusader, some would say a fanatic. Having listened closely to many of his recordings, I can say that what sets him apart from many conductors is the deep empathy and care he shows for the particular piece he's involved with, combined with an extremely analytical and exacting critical sensibility. His recordings of religious music - such as his Philips Classics sets of the Requiems of Fauré and Mozart - are masterpieces of reverence and integrity. From the prayerful hush to the majestic crescendo, everything is treated with the utmost care, and with an awareness of how each part of the work fits into the whole.

    All these qualities are to be found in abundance in Gardiner's recordig of the St Matthew Passion, because if it's religious works which bring out his talents fully, then it's the religious works of Bach which draws them out to the uttermost degree. The fact that Gardiner is spending the entirety of the year 2000 performing all existing 198 sacred cantatas at holy sites throughout Europe is indication both of his unswerving commitment to the cantor of Leipzig and of his almost obsessive perfectionism. It's a quality beyond mere taste. He has a tremendous sense of moment, of the dread and ecstasy of religious experience and of the cosmic significance it entails.

    He also, more practically, has a great deal of experience working with the music of Saxony's finest musician, having produced many recordings of the cantatas, motets, suites, masses and passions. Which brings us to the soloists, many of whom Gardiner has worked with before. It may be an exaggeration to say that any performance of the St Matthew Passion is only as good as its Evangelist, but I doubt it.

    After Gardiner, it's really tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson who makes this recording exceptional. He makes a superb Evangelist, the sublime timbre of his voice combining the spirit of the priest with the dramatic gifts of the storyteller. His variance of tone makes the recitatives constantly engaging. Take for instance his mournful closing of the Mount of Olives sequence, which is almost immediately followed by the tumultuous passage describing the arrest of Jesus.

    During Peter's Denial, singing the closing "Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich", his voice reaches a sadness that is somehow transcendent in its purity. Following the crucifixion, his hushed "Und von der sechsten Stunde" sends chills through the listener. Almost unaccompanied, Johnson guides us into the spiritual void of Jesus' death, summoning up the very depths of a despair that seems to encompass the Christian religion.

    Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ) by Giotto

    Right: Detail from "Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ)", 1304-06 by Giotto.

    As Jesus, baritone Andreas Schmidt brings all the grace and humility of the martyr. Luckily, he also brings the fire and passion of the revolutionary, so essential in ensuring that this role doesn't become a wet blanket. The air of resigned humility he creates during the betrayal passages is almost unbearably sad.

    The Swedish alto Anne Sofie von Otter, a familiar Gardiner cohort, also gives an exquisite performance. Her remarkably adaptable voice is capable of just about anything - witness her recent Alban Berg and Kurt Weill ("Speak Low") sets - but shines in the Baroque repertoire. It comes to the fore in the grief-stricken aria which precedes Judas' Betrayal and in the opening of the Passion's second part, "Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin!". She's also responsible for another of this set's highlights, the tearful aria "Können Tränen meiner Wangen."

    I don't really need to say anything about countertenor Michael Chance. If you know him, either from his Gardiner work such as the Passions or the B-minor Mass, or from any of the other projects he's been involved in, you'll know what an extraordinary singer this man is. If you don't, be assured that his "Erbarme dich" is a glorious, shining marvel, and that he makes a suitably disgusted Pilate.

    For the sopranos, Barbara Bonney is an inspirational presence in whatever she records, and this set is no different. The ecstatic devotional aria which closes the last supper, "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken" is like a sunburst exploding the solemnity of the preceding passages. Her joyful vocal almost has you dancing! Ann Monoyios, after a furtive start in "Blute nur, du liebes Herz!" also shines in "Aus Liebe."

    Slightly less engaging is bass Cornelius Hauptmann, the only aspect of this set which approaches disappointment. He doesn't connect with the text to nearly the same extent as Schmidt or - particularly - Johnson. His aria "Gebt mir meinen Jesum weider!" is bold but lacks the required element of self-blame to give it real depth. The highpoint for any bass in the Passion, of course, is "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" (used to great effect, incidentally, in the recent Anthony Minghella film, The Talented Mr Ripley) and again Hauptmann doesn't lean fully into the piece as much as he could. His tone and phrasing are faultless, but I felt a certain element of passionate abandon was missing.

    Baritone Olaf Bar is typically splendid. He gives a bitter contempt to his performance of the High Priest, all but spitting "Siehe, itzt habt ihr seine Gotteslasterung gehoret," during Jesus' Interrogation.

    For the orchestra, Gardiner's rapport with his period-instrument hit squad the English Baroque Soloists can be taken for granted. More unknown, but just as important, is the relationship with the choral forces. The chorus is, of course, crucial. In St Matthew's Passion this body of singers must transform from a contemptuous angry mob beating Jesus and shouting sarcastic questions at him, to a heartbroken group of witnesses softly proclaiming his purity, all within a minim rest!

    Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and Gardiner Gardiner's rapport with the Monteverdi Choir and the London Oratory Junior Choir is obvious from the very beginning, in the famous "Kommt, ihr Töchter" chorale with its alternating dynamic, "Sehet - Wen? Den Bräutigam". The voices are perfectly weighted, working as separate parts and then moving seamlessly into a single unit.

    Above/left: The Monteverdi Choir with John Eliot Gardiner at the Barbican, London (seen with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique). Photo from the Monteverdi Choir website.

    Indeed at every stage of the work they perfectly rise to each mood: crisp and strident when needed - as in the response of Caiaphas in the work's very beginning - or hushed and grief-stricken - as in the section during the Despair at the Mount of Olives, or full of holy fury - as in the outburst of horror at the arrest of Jesus. The quiet of the chorale following Jesus' death, "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden" stills the heart.

    For the technicians, the 1988 digital recording is, as the saying goes, spacious and clear, with the ambience of the location - the Snape Maltings concert hall in Suffolk - being used to great dramatic effect, especially in the choruses.

    The highlights of a Gardiner performance - a gloriously light touch, magnificent detailing and an exceptional thematic continuity, might not be of paramount importance to all listeners. So let me also make clear that this set has - unbelievably in my view, but there you go - received various criticisms.

    The Volbach portrait

    Right: The "Volbach portrait" of Bach in his later years.
    For a start it's not the loudest Passion around. For that you might want to see Karajan and the other thunderers. Tempos are, as has been extensively remarked upon elsewhere, quite brisk, and this might also not be to some tastes. Of course it's also a period performance with everything this entails. I'm not going to even begin a whole period versus non-period argument.

    Let me just say this: from the very beginning, where the steady building of "Kommt, ihr Töchter" calls to mind the stirring of some vast cosmic intelligence - the formation of a new universe - to its tragic, triumphant finale, with its devastating "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" chorus, this is an achingly sincere work of devotion and faith, humility and love.

    It you want to get a taste of how it might have felt to be at the first performance of St Matthew's Passion, in the church in Thomaskirche, Leipzig in 1727, buy this beautiful classic recording and immerse yourself in it totally. The message to humanity contained in its verses is as clear today as the day it was written.


    NAT TUNBRIDGE is a Virgo, but he's dealing with it.

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