JS Bach: St Matthew Passion

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Claudia Couwenbergh (soprano), Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano), Nico van der Meel, Markus Schäfer (tenor), Raimond Nolte (bass-baritone), Locky Chung, Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass); Dresden Chamber Choir; Cologne Cathedral Boys’ Choir; Cologne CO/
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557617-19
options ranging from Karajan’s hefty Berlin forces in 1971 to McCreesh, one-to-a-part, in 2003. This Naxos recording reflects much historically-informed thinking though the scale is traditional – 24 modern orchestral strings, mixed-voice choir of 36, with the Cologne Cathedral boys gloriously uplifting in the ripieno chorus lines.

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The very nature of the Passion account requires an exceptional narrator. Nico van der Meel is outstanding as the Evangelist, deeply involved in the drama, varying its momentum from the most matter-of-fact to moments of breathtaking imagery, (expressiveness all the more essential in the absence of text/translation). Locky Chung, a voice and personality to watch, portrays minor parts splendidly – Judas’s whispered deal with the chief priests, Peter’s assumed indignation – while Raimund Nolte’s Jesus is unsententious, human, and apprehensive about his fate.

Helmut Müller-Brühl’s tempos are fashionably fast, matching McCreesh in the opening chorus, and creating terrifying ‘lightnings and thunder’. He is scrupulous with Bach’s articulation markings, sometimes overly so, creating motifs too distinctive to weld into longer musical sentences. The aria soloists similarly fragment lines – Marianne Beate Kielland presses each note and cuts off tone with conscientious final consonants, at the cost of musical direction (‘Buss und Reu’). Hanno Müller-Brachmann has a fine voice, marred by insecure tuning in angular lines (‘Gerne will ich…’). Choral characterisation is versatile – both fierce mob and reflective commentator. Chorales, though, are maddeningly laboured as Müller-Brühl stretches every pause to three beats rather than treating them as articulatory breathing-points.

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My current benchmark looks back 18 years, to Gardiner’s dramatic vision and exceptional skill in weaving fastidious detail into deeply-moving expansive lines. George Pratt