Bach: St Matthew Passion

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley, Stanford Olsen (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (baritone), Christiane Oelze (soprano), Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Michael Volle (bass); Tokyo Opera Singers, Saito Kinen Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
CATALOGUE NO: 462 515-2
After so many ‘period’ performances, this makes nostalgic listening – modern strings, wide vibrato, high pitch, some cadences denuded of trills, some appoggiatura conventions omitted. Rich, dense tone quality reflects the choir’s operatic provenance. At best, the resulting drama is striking: while intertwining soprano and contralto meditate on the arrest of Jesus, the interjections ‘Loose Him! Leave Him!’ are immensely powerful; ‘Lightnings and thunders’ achieve a stormy force beyond the reach of slighter resources; calls for Jesus’s crucifixion match those of any crowd of political demonstrators. Elsewhere, the effect is less convincing. Hard soprano tone strangles the questioning interjections, ‘Whom?’, ‘How?’, ‘What?’, in the opening chorus; vibrato-laden voices with instruments in agitated equal semiquavers disturb the mood of ‘O Mensch bewein’. Here especially I longed for Koopman’s leaning, lifted appoggiaturas carrying the movement forward so purposefully.

Advertisement

Ainsley, a fine Evangelist untroubled by modern high pitch, makes free with note-values when the drama dictates. Quasthoff (Jesus) is strongly characterised, a touch imperious at times, while Volle’s bass arias are gloriously lyrical, notably in ‘Give me back my Lord’. I found Stutzmann, (contralto) rather mannered: in ‘Erbarme dich’ her voice cuts ardently through the pleading violin with expanding vibrato, no match for Kai Wessel’s ethereal countertenor with Koopman.

Advertisement

Recorded sound is immediate, soloists and instruments close, barely warmed by acoustic ‘presence’, chorus more distant. Stereo placing is effective, for example in the mocking double-choir ‘Hail! King of the Jews’. But the performance falls considerably short of Koopman’s boundless expressive imagination, my continuing benchmark. George Pratt