St Matthew Passion
Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Bernarda Fink, Elisabeth von Magnus (alto), Christoph Prégardien, Michael Schade, Markus Schäfer (tenor), Dietrich Henschel, Matthias Goerne, Oliver Widmer (bass); Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Vienna Boys Choir/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Teldec Das Alte Werk 8573-81036-2
It is just over 30 years since Nikolaus Harnoncourt made his first recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I can remember listening with astonishment and joy to the lively dance-like character of the opening chorus, a far cry from any tempo I had grown up with. Now Harnoncourt takes it more briskly, knocking almost three-quarters of a minute off the earlier recording – and it evinced no astonishment at all, such has been the evolution in Baroque music performance over the past quarter-century and more. Harnoncourt reveals the poetry and the lyricism of Bach’s ‘Great Passion’, as his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel dubbed it, with greater intensity than most of his rivals, excepting perhaps Philippe Herreweghe.
A conspicuous and consistently pleasing aspect of this new performance lies in its refined phrasing and light articulation. Add to these virtues Harnoncourt’s dramatically orientated view of the work, his long experience with Bach’s sacred vocal music and his contemplative responses to it, and you have a version that is rewarding indeed.
But, of course, it is above all the dramatis personae who determine the success or failure of an awe-inspiring drama on this magnificent scale. Harnoncourt has not always assembled uniformly effective casts of singers for his recordings of operas, oratorios, Masses and Passions. But this time he has scored a bull’s-eye. Christoph Prégardien’s Evangelist is inflected with all the skill of a consummate storyteller, while Matthias Goerne’s Jesus is tenderly expressive and compassionate. Among other rewarding contributions are those by sopranos Christine Schäfer and Dorothea Röschmann and contralto Bernarda Fink. Only the Arnold Schoenberg Choir just occasionally fails to project clearly defined musical phrases; and the dramatic pacing towards the end seems eccentric and unsettling. But this is the most satisfying St Matthew Passion I have heard for some considerable while, and its lavish presentation includes video enhancement that allows you to follow the music in Bach’s autograph score if played on a Mac or PC.
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