Best Recorded St Matthew Passion

By Scott MacClelland

1014657FOR MY MONEY, the best late-baroque opera of all was not written for the stage, not even close. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is bursting with drama, pictorial instrumentation, arias, theatrical sequences and sheer emotion, which must have been a wild experience for the parishioners three centuries ago at services in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where it was performed. —Paul Hertelendy, SF Bay Area music critic.

What is it about this work that continually transcends all operas of the period, that flies above and beyond the stage works of its time, the real laboratories of innovation?

René Jacobs and the Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin made the recording in 2012 and Harmonia Mundi released it in 2013, but only recently announced local distribution. Any fresh ‘go’ at the Bach masterpiece will draw enthusiasts like moths to a flame, and some, like myself, will embrace this one as the best of the bunch.

It will also draw comparisons with HM’s previously issued St Matthew with the Collegium Vocal Ghent conducted by its founder, Philippe Herreweghe, of 1999. And it should. Both conductors were born in Ghent, just seven months apart; both subscribe to Baroque-era performance practices and feature outstanding casts of solo and choral voices; as an acclaimed countertenor, Jacobs performed with Herreweghe, including taking the alto part in the St. Matthew.

Yet there are notable differences. To start with, Herreweghe’s opening chorus has a driving urgency, while Jacobs’ takes a more solemn pace. But straight away, the continuo accompaniment to the “Evangelist” and the character partShizuko Noiris in the gospel narrative brings forward a 14-course archlute (played by Shizuko Noiri, right) with its rich resonance and biting articulation. (With much the same advantage, the harpsichord often gets brightly spotlighted as well.)

Jacobs sought to replicate the conditions of Bach’s Leipzig church, Thomaskirche, which had organs at each end, by dividing his orchestral and choral forces into two groups: the first concentrates on the dramatic narrative while the second offers more of the reflective elements. That’s why, when you listen to the recording, some of the solos sound more distant from the main acoustic focus. You hear the space the recording was made in.

You also hear expressive details that suggest to me that Jacobs, who obviously loves the work, also illustrates the details, some actually witty, that spark the drama overall. The interaction between the vocal soloists and their instrumental accompaniment (obbligatos) is at times especially intense. Sometimes the recitative exchanges between the evangelist and the incidental solo characters are theatrical, sometimes downright sarcastic. When Jesus tells his disciples “One of you will betray me,” the anxious tumble of “Is it I?” sounds only one voice at a time, unlike most performances that use a texture of multiple voices together. It is this contrast between the big picture—the tragic drama—and the human details that drives Jacobs’ account and makes it my favorite to date.

Harmonia Mundi captured the entire passion oratorio onto two SACDs. Jacobs original release came with a 45 minute DVD documentary that traces the processes of making the recording, with plenty of comment from Jacobs (in French with subtitles) and some of his colleagues (in French and German.) At one point, Jacobs asserts and illustrates his conclusion that the high flutes of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion represent sin. One of the most ethereal and naive arias comes between two crowd scenes demanding crucifixion, when the soprano (Sunhae Im) sings “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (For love my savior is willing to die) to the hollow-sounding effect of flute and two oboes “da caccia.”

Joining the orchestra, RIAS Kammerchor and Staats- und Domchor Berlin (boys choir) is an outstanding cast of solo voices. Jacobs uses two each solo sopranos, altos (no countertenors), tenors and basses, with notation as to who takes which arias. Bernarda Fink sings a desperate “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” with concertmaster Bernhard Forck’s frantic solo obbligato. (In the documentary, Forck explains that he is almost always the leader of his orchestra, which is otherwise conductorless.) Werner Güra, the solo tenor in the Herreweghe recording, is the evangelist here, etching the narration with protean, often flamboyant intensity.

Just at the end, the bass Konstantin Wolff sings the magical “Evening” recitative—written by Bach’s favorite poet/librettist, Picander—summing up Adam’s fall, God’s promise to save the world after the flood, and the sacrifice of Christ that sets up the final aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (Make thyself clean, my heart.) This scena for many—including Jacobs—has deeply personal significance. But, surprise, instead of the deeply solemn character usually given the aria, Wolff (and Jacobs) give it an upbeat bounce. Moreover, in the da capo repeat Wolff adds appoggiaturas and ornaments, a personal touch that tilts the character of the piece in a surprising but, to me, entirely convincing direction.

To watch a clip from the DVD, click HERE