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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Detail from "Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ)", 1304-06 by Giotto.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
The Monteverdi Choir with John Eliot Gardiner at the Barbican, London
(seen with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique). Photo from
the Monteverdi Choir website.
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.
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.
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" of Bach in his later years.
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
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.
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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16.3.2000 © Nat Tunbridge
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