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Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt
By Donald Satz (March-May 2001)

Contents

Part 1
The Recordings
Feedback to Part 1
Part 2
Feedback to Part 2

 

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt, Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (March 30, 2001):
Introduction

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is considered the most monumental Passion ever composed. Bach wrote the work in the 1729 time frame, six years after he arrived at Leipzig. He collaborated with a C.F. Henrici, a man of literature who worked under the pseudonym of Picander.

The Passion had a long history before Bach composed music. There are four Passions based on the particular Evangelist: John, Luke, Matthew, or Mark. When Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion, praise was not the immediate reaction. Much response was negative concerning whether Bach's music was an appropriate vehicle for such a pious undertaking. At this point in time, the St. Matthew Passion has the reputation of being one of the greatest sacred choral works ever composed. I know of one review periodical which calls the work the greatest classical composition in the entire field. Bach uses a double chorus and orchestra which are integral parts of the work's architecture and enhances its majestic nature.

When looking at the various recordings of the St. Matthew Passion, there's an obvious quickening of tempo as the versions become more recent. For example, Klemperer's EMI set requires three well-filled discs, while the recent issue from Jeffrey Thomas and his American Baroque Orchestra has three partly filled CD's. This difference is immediately apparent with the opening chorus of the work. Klemperer takes over 11 minutes, while the majority of versions released over the past 15 years are in the 6 to 8 minute range. There has been much debate concerning whether the slower or faster tempos are more historically accurate, and I assume this debate will continue well into the future. I'm not particularly concerned with historical accuracy; the performers will do as they please, and I will judge the results on musical grounds. If I find Klemperer's opening chorus excessively slow or the others too quick, considerations of historical accuracy will play no part in my conclusion.

The impetus for this posting is the new Harnoncourt set from Teldec. For the review project, I am using only period instrument recordings excepting for the Klemperer set. I did decide to include Klemperer because my perception is that his modern instrument set is the most revered within that category. I will do my best to fairly evaluate this set while not giving it special consideration for any reason. I am also including the Christoph Spering set on Opus 111 which is an arrangement by none other than Felix Mendelssohn who was the driving force in bringing back Bach's St. Matthew Passion to the attention of the public. The list of versions to review and their particulars are as follows:

 

The Recordings

Philippe Herreweghe I - Harmonia Mundi 901155/57 originally issued in 1985. Vocal Soloists are Howard Crook, Ulrik Cold, Barbara Schlick, Rene Jacobs, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, and Peter Kooy.

Herreweghe II - Harmonia Mundi 951676/78 issued in 1999. Vocal soloists are Ian Bostridge, Franz-Josef Selig, Sibylla Rubens, Andreas Scholl, Werner Gura, and Dietrich Henschel.

John Eliot Gardiner - Archiv 427648 issued in 1989. Vocal soloists are Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Andreas Schmidt, Barbara Bonney, Ann Monoyios, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, Olaf Bär, and Cornelius Hauptmann.

Masaaki Suzuki - BIS 1000/02 issued in 1999. Vocal soloists are Gerd Türk, Peter Kooy, Nancy Argenta, Robin Blaze, Makoto Sakurada, Chiyuki Urano, Midori Suzuki, Yoshie Hilda, Kirsten Sollek-Avella, Jun Hagiwara, and Tetsuya Odagawa.

Christoph Spering - Opus 111 30-72/73 originally issued in 1992. Vocal soloists are Wilfried Jochens, Peter Lika, Angela Kazimierczuk, Alison Browner, Markus Schäfer, and Franz-Joseph Selig.

Otto Klemperer - EMI 63058 originally issued in 1962. Vocal soloists are Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, and Walter Berry.

Jeffrey Thomas - Koch International 37424 issued in 2000(recorded in 1996). Vocal soloists are Catherine Bott, Tamara Matthews, Judith Malafronte, Dana Marsh, Jeffrey Thomas, Benjamin Butterfield, David Munderloh, William Sharp, Nathaniel Watson, and James Weaver.

Jos van Veldhoven - Channel Classics 11397 originally issued in 1997. Vocal soloists are Gerd Türk, Geert Smits, Johannette Zomer, Andreas Scholl, Hans Jorg Mammel, and Peter Kooy.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt - Teldec 81036 issued in 2001. Vocal soloists are Christoph Prégardien, Matthias Gorne, Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Roschmann, Bernarda Fink, Elisabeth von Magnus, Michael Schade, Markus Schäfer, Dietrich Henschel, and Oliver Widmer.

Spering's recording can exist because of Mendelssohn's revival of the St. Matthew Passion on March 11, 1829 in Berlin. Did Mendelssohn make many changes to the work? Actually, he made more cuts than anything else; Mendelssohn dumped more than half the arias. Another revival of the work in 1841 restored four of the arias, and it is the 1841 version which Spering performs. The Spering notes provide great detail concerning any and all changes from Bach's score; it's a superb reference for CD liner notes. I should also relate that the recitatives take on greater meaning in Mendelssohn's revival. Bach used the recitative to convey changes of mood; Mendelssohn, as befitting his time, uses it to express emotion. With this in mind, the elimination of some of the arias becomes easier to understand. Now on to the music itself.

The opening Chorus is magnificent and very powerful music. For me, it represents the last steps of Jesus as he is led to his crucifixion. The man has been humiliated, tortured, and brought down thoroughly. Even so, he must endure the walk to where his life will end, carrying the resting place of his destruction. He hardly has any energy left, his head is bleeding with the blood getting into his eyes, the burden of the wooden cross he carries is overwhelming, and fellow humans along the way are mocking and condemning him. Jesus is experiencing the downfall one achieves when competing without sufficient resources against the bases of power. He has exceeded his grasp and is paying dearly.

In my opinion, the Chorus well expresses my take on the music's meaning. There is a very heavy and rhythmic pulse that keeps going and going; it almost seems unbearable. I can easily picture Jesus trudging over the dry land, each step taking another slice of life away from him. In essence, the music grabs the listener by the throat and doesn't let go; any performance which does not fully realize this will likely not be very rewarding. If the Chorus offered no more than I described, it would still be a great beginning to the Passion. But there is a whole other side to the text and music which is uplifting and creates the musical contrast that makes the Chorus a masterpiece. That other side is the redemption that has been made possible through Christ's impending crucifixion. Another point of contrast is Jesus as man compared to Jesus as the son of God, the innocent lamb who is sacrificed to save humanity.

Klemperer is ever so slow, but that's not my problem with his performance. His pulse gives me little sense of inevitability, and he tends to accentuate everything which results in a slight degree of caricature. I find his reading to be somewhat out of proportion. Suzuki is better with fine pulse and strength. However, I feel there is a dour and smoothed quality which holds it back from being one of the best versions. Gardiner takes me another step up with a quick seven minute performance which the music can well handle. Although Gardiner does very well with his bass lines and
pulse, it's the uplifting quality of his reading which is most attractive.

Jeffrey Thomas must think that Jesus had a lively step on that fateful day; at just six minutes, Thomas takes Jesus off to the races. Just pcture it and it looks absurd. I hope this isn't a sign that Thomas is going to be tempo challenged. Spering is very good with his pacing, bass lines, and momentum. His Chorus Musicus left me with mixed feelings; at times they are wonderful, at times they over-emote. The earlier Herreweghe recording is superb. While Herreweghe carries the full weight of the burden and even gives the music a desperate quality, he also finds all the rays of light and combines them into a magical listening experience. The more recent Herreweghe is just a touch less effective; the earlier issue's more raw quality enhances the sense of desperation.

Harnoncourt's major appeal to me is the urgency that runs through his performance and creates an exciting atmosphere. Veldhoven has a sluggish quality although the performance is not a slow one. Overall, Herreweghe I has my strongest affection closely followed by II. Gardiner and Harnoncourt are excellent alternatives, and Spering and Suzuki are very rewarding. Klemperer and Veldhoven are moderately enjoyable; Thomas is a non-starter as his speed is excessive and other aspects of his reading are ordinary.

In the next segment, we go back in time to the beginning of Jesus' downfall. He knows he is about to be betrayed, his disciples are getting into a lather over next to nothing, and the general populace is getting reading to turn on him. The segment includes Matthew, Jesus, a gorgeous choral, two very short and rousing choruses, an alto recitative, and a concluding alto aria of serenity and mystery.

Veldhoven's Matthew and Jesus are fine, and the choruses are very effective. The big problem is the alto aria which is an instrumental mess - no serenity and no mystery. It's too fast, too choppy, and too indistinct. No matter how good Andreas Scholl might be, he can't possibly save this performance.

Herreweghe I is a major improvement. As effective in the other areas as Veldhoven, Herreweghe's aria is outstanding. Rene Jacobs may not have the pure tonal beauty of Scholl, but he is a perfect match for the aria's music. Both he and Herreweghe bring an eerie atmosphere to the proceedings, and it fits just right; Jesus' life is turning upside down.

Herreweghe II outshines the earlier issue slightly. Once again, Andreas Scholl is the alto, and he shines through beautifully. However, I still prefer Jacobs. Where the newer issue has advantages concerns Matthew and Jesus, represented by Ian Bostridge and Franz-Joseph Selig. Bostridge has a fantastic voice and Selig is much more effective than Ulrik Cold for Herreweghe I or Geert Smits for Veldhoven.

Gardiner's Evangelist, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, can stand up to Bostridge quite well. Also, the choruses are excellent for Gardiner. The aria is not as effective, and the source of the problem is Anne Sophie von Otter. She sounds lovely as always, but I detect little identity with the moods of the music. I end up feeling that she has not added value to the aria, sounding somewhat generic.

Suzuki has Gerd Türk as Matthew and Peter Kooy as Jesus; they are a fine duo. The choral work is outstanding, but the aria has the same problem as in Gardiner's version. Robin Blaze also sounds generic although pleasureable; in addition, he hoots a couple of times. I'd place Suzuki's performances at Gardiner's level.

Harnoncourt reaches the heights and the low end in this segment. Having Christoph Prégardien and Matthias Goerne as Matthew and Jesus is as good as it gets. Also, the aria is even better than Herreweghe I as Harnoncourt fully brings out the eerie quality in the music and Bernarda Fink is the expressive equivalent of Jacobs but with a better voice. The flip-side is that the gorgeous chorus isn't so gorgeous in Harnoncourt's hands; he's too forceful and misses much of the choral's beauty. Overall, he's better than Suzuki and Gardiner, but a notch below Herreweghe I.

Klemperer continues his slow ways, particularly in the first choral which is mesmerizing. Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus is superb, but I don't have a warm spot for Peter Pears as Matthew. Christa Ludwig has the honors in the recitative and aria; she is very expressive, although I feel that Bernarda Fink outshines her this time around. Klemperer joins Harnoncourt in giving excellent peformances of this segment.

Jeffrey Thomas and company do quite well except for the alto recitative and aria. Thomas is a fine Evangelist and William Sharp is effective as Jesus. The chorals are sung very well. However, none of this is superb, and Judith Malafronte, the alto, is either placed too far forward or she is projecting too strongly. Overall, this issue is better than Veldhoven's but not by much.

Spering is at Thomas' level. His Evangelist and Jesus are steady, and the choruses are moderately expressive. The main differences in this Mendelssohn version is that a soprano replaces the alto in the recitative and the aria makes use of the organ. I don't find the soprano alternative to be significant, but the organ is a very deep and attractive addition. The singers, soprano Angela Kazimierczuk and alto Alison Browner are worthy but not special.

The segment just finished largely involved states of mind and expectations about future events. In the next segment, 'action' takes place as Judas betrays Jesus; he is offered and accepts 30 pieces of silver from the High Priests to insure that Jesus is brought to justice. Participants in this segment include Matthew, Judas, and a soprano aria where Judas is compared to a serpent.

I've always found Judas to be an interesting character. In one sense, he is simply a self-serving traitor who deserves the serpent designation. But he is also a necessary link toward the redemption that is made possible through the crucifixion; he has a role to play which is pre-determined. Did Judas somehow feel a compulsion to betray Jesus to fulfill his role, or was he just greedy and perhaps disillusioned by Jesus' actions? When Judas asks the High Priests, "What will you give me if I deliver him to you", in what manner does he ask for payment?

My opinion is that Judas was a despicable individual. Not only does he try to create distance for himself from the group he belongs to in order to save his skin; he also asks for compensation. To me, Judas represents the friend, spouse, and community that is so favorable when times are good. Yet, when you really need support during times of crisis, the Judas types cut out and even assist your enemies.

The Thomas version has one major flaw - the Judas represented by Robert Stafford who gives a poor interpretation. The way Stafford sees it, Judas is just about begging for compensation. I feel that Judas is evil, not whining. On the plus side, the soprano aria is exceptional.Thomas' orchestral forces are urgent and poetic; Tamara Matthews has a lovely and expressive voice filled with urgency. She's a hard act to follow.

Klemperer's Judas, John Carol Case, gets it right. He is assertive and sure of himself, a person not to be taken lightly. Klemperer's aria is well done and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is as expressive as Tamara Matthews. However, I find that Matthews has the better voice. On balance, both versions of the betrayl of Jesus are of high quality.

Gardiner is even better and owes much to the soprano Ann Monoyios who is pure magic in the aria. Her voice floats urgently with an exquisite beauty; her aria is one of the highlights of my review process.

Herreweghe II is a disappointment, and it's on his shoulders. The orchestral playing in the aria, although quick, is much too relaxed and surface-bound. The urgency just isn't there. That's a shame since soprano Sibylla Rubens is as fine as Tamara Matthews. I am impressed with these sopranos.

Herreweghe I is a much better proposition than the more recent interpretation and joins Gardiner in exalted territory. His Judas, Renaud Machart, is very effective. More significant, the aria's tempo is much slower than in Herreweghe II with a pacing that I find perfect. It's also a very clean perf. Concerning the soprano, Barbara Schlick is excellent. I never find her to have much tonal beauty, but nobody expresses
urgency as intensely as Schlick who is always on the edge.

Suzuki is almost up to the level of Gardiner and Herreweghe I. Suzuki has a fine Judas, and his aria invites comparison with Herreweghe I. Soprano Nancy Argenta is in better voice than I usually find, and her expressiveness and urgency are excellent.

The Veldhoven version is a good one which compares well with Klemperer and Thomas. There's nothing exceptional here but, again, I find an excellent soprano in Johannette Zomer.

The Betrayl of Jesus segment is not one of Harnoncourt's better interpretations. Everything is going very well until the soprano aria. In the aria, Harnoncourt is a lttle rushed and it shows throughout the piece. Also, Dorothea Roschmann, usually excellent, is too full-throated for this music and does not sound particularly fetching. She is up against fantastic soprano alternatives and doesn't meet the test. Overall, I find the Harnoncourt at the level of Herreweghe II.

Spering is at the bottom as he's off to the races in the soprano aria. He distorts and trivializes the music greatly. Spering's soprano, Evangelist, and Judas do well, but it's all down the tubes with a very ill-conceived aria.

Update: Herreweghe's recording from the 1980's has started off in wonderful fashion; he has directed superbly, and his aria soloists can not be bettered for matching the music's moods. Herreweghe's more recent set and Gardiner are excellent overall. Harnoncourt and Suzuki have given me much pleasure with Klemperer close to their level.

Thomas, Veldhoven, and Spering are shaping up as being challenged to match the competititon. They have not yet risen to the top at any time, although I have strong affection for Tamara Matthews for Thomas. I'm beginning to get the feeling that the main news about the Spering release is not its Mendelssohn revival version of 1841, but that it's simply not one of the better performances of the Passion, regardless of the version used. Of course, all this is subject to change as there's a wealth of music waiting to be heard.

Part 2 will commence with the "Last Supper" segment as Suzuki calls it. I'm itching to get to it and already famished; last suppers should be memorable eating experiences.

 

Feedback to Part 1

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (March 31, 2001):
(To Donald Satz) Please, I cannot possibly dare to compete with the erudite author of this post, but I would only add that the Klemperer, long a mainstay of my Bachian life, is simply much too operatic to be possible for me any more. And do I love Klemperer, both the musician and the great man. But I leave him for Mahler AND for Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner operas. I hope that Otto forgive me; else I should be very sad indeed.
**Archaic English subjunctive of wish. :-)

 

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt, Part 2

Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2001):
In the Last Supper segment, Jesus summons together his disciples on the first night of Passover. We all know what happens at that supper. Most of the dialogue involves the Evangelist and Jesus; there's also a gorgeous choral. Then, a soprano recitative and aria close out the section. The aria is optimistic and rather playful with the oboe d'amore singing with satisfaction and youthfulness.

Concerning the Last Supper, there is the question of how animated Jesus and his disciples were during that meal. The conversational themes during the supper are certainly dramatic. However, I've always had the impression that emotions were relatively restrained based on Jesus already knowing about the upcoming betrayl and its necessity; given his leadership position, I think it reasonable that the emotional levels did not get out of hand.

Harnoncourt's version presents two problems. First, Matthias Goerne as Jesus over-emotes and seems frantic at times, as if he had no idea ahead of time about Judas and his betrayl. Second, Harnoncourt provides insufficient lift to the aria with a staid performance. That's a shame since Christine Schafer has a great and youthful voice.

Although on the quick side, Thomas does very well until the soprano enters. I'm particularly impressed with William Sharp as Jesus who is much more effective than Goerne. Catherine Bott is another matter. She is not in fine voice at all. Also, Thomas is too fast in the aria.

Herreweghe I has great choral work, effective contributions from the Evangelist and Jesus, and a wonderful rhythm to the aria. However, the aria does not play into the urgent/tension based strengths of Barbara Schlick - bad casting.

Herreweghe II possesses all the fine qualities of the earlier issue with the added pleasure of the superb Ian Bostridge and soprano Sibylla Rubens who is much more suited for the aria than Barbara Schlick. I find Bostridge's voice an amazing instrument with great mobility. Rubens has just the right mood as her mildly deep soprano voice blends beautifully with her playful delivery. Overall, Herreweghe would be a hard act to surpass.

Veldhoven and company do a fine job with effective choral work and dialogue although I'm not impressed with the voice of Geert Smits. Veldhoven directs well and soprano Johannette Zomer is almost as good as Rubens in the aria. However, nothing is exceptional whereas Herreweghe II is consistently so.

Gardiner, like Thomas, is quite fast in the soprano aria. Part of the text is, "I will submerge myself in thee". My view is that a slower tempo along the lines of most of the other versions better conveys those feelings. Barbara Bonney, although not all that expressive in the aria, has the right tone and quite a lovely voice. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is excellent in his Evangelist role. Overall, the segment is quite good except for the fast tempo in the aria.

Klemperer and chorus provide a thoroughly spiritually uplifitng conclusion to the choral which is ever so slow; the tempo is very effective. The aria is also slow paced and gorgeous; you won't find a more expressive soloist on record than Schwarzkopf although I again find her tonal beauty not admirable.

Suzuki is excellent and only surpassed by Herreweghe II. My sole reservation is a choral with less expressiveness than provided by most of the other versions. Gerd Terk and Peter Kooy are wonderful with the dialogue, and the aria has a great bounce and vitality; Nancy Argenta handles her role effectively with a youthful and relatively exuberant voice.

Spering goes with the two major cuts in this segment, one of them being the aria. It doesn't bother me that some dialogue is cut; I think the text here too wordy. Cutting the aria does bother me. It's a lovely and uplifting piece of vocal music, and I sure don't want it gone simply to adhere to some subsequent revision. I blame Mendelssohn for creating this omission and Spering for his complicity. Just because someone rips some music out of a score doesn't require that anybody follow suit. Put another way, I think it's idiotic to erase one of the best arias from the St. Matthew Passion. Also, there are not a wealth of arias to begin with in this long Passion. I've known for many years that Mendelssohn and I are not on similar wavelengths, and this is just further evidence. Spering's Last Supper is a bomb.

The next segment revolves around Jesus' despair. Look at it his way. His best friends on Earth are going to deny they ever knew him; Jesus loses out to the survival instinct. He has given of himself over and over again, but nobody is there to give to him; in a sense, Jesus is totally alone. He has humiliation, rejection, beatings, and a horrible death waiting for him. He will emotionally be a wreck before he is even arrested. So Jesus was on the Mount feeling like any human would under the dire circumstances except that he had an additional burden - the sins of the world.

Some of the best music in the St. Matthew Passion or any other musical source is in this segment. The opening recitative of the Evangelist and Jesus has dynamite blasting out from the strings. The chorals are justly famous and differ in such subtle wa. And the best comes last - an aria for tenor and chorus which is another of those Bach compositions which seems to come from the heavens. It starts with an oboe solo which is so soothing and yet edgy also. The music gets even better with the entrance of the tenor who re-emphasizes the bitter/sweet contrasts of life. Then out of nowhere, the chorus takes over and I am lifted to other worlds. Jesus has been alone, but the watchman will stay by his side as he sleeps.

Harnoncourt gives the least rewarding performances during this segment for two reasons. First, the two chorals sound aggressive and forced. The beginning of the first choral is ridiculously forced and matters improve little after that. Harnoncourt is often chided for aggressive direction, and the two chorals are a perfect example of it. Second, the tenor in the aria, Michael Schade, keeps yelling into my ears; I don't know what his problem might be but I prefer not to be yelled at.

Veldhoven doesn't hold up well to the competition, and his handling of a fast tempo plays a major part. It isn't that this tempo can't work well, but that Veldhoven loses some rhythmic bounce. Although a fast version, it seemed too long and that can't be good. The tenor soloist, Hans Jorg Mammel, has a nice sounding instrument but it does not ring out well when needed. The choral work is good but not distinguished.

The Spering and Suzuki versions are fine ones. Neither gets distinguished singing from their tenor soloist, but the choral work is excellent. Spering, in the opening recitative, does not provide any dynamite from his strings, but the tenor/choral recitative is one of the best I've heard.

Herreweghe II is wonderful throughout. Ian Bostridge is superb and the bass Franz-Joseph Selig is also highly effective. The chorals are magnificent. The most impressive part is the tenor aria. There's a strong sense of comfort from the text and music, but it is contrasted in both by urgency and nerves on edge. Herreweghe's chorus seems to instinctively identify with these feelings. The tenor Werner Gura does not have one of the beautiful voices in the world, but it goes wherever Gura wants it to in such a seamless manner. Most important, he perfectly conveys the moods of the music. To get the most out the aria, the contrasts in emotions need to be embedded in the performers; Herreweghe and company are right in there.

Although not at Herreweghe's superior level, the Jeffrey Thomas performances are excellent. Thomas' problems have mainly involved very fast tempos. In Jesus' Despair, he actually tends toward slower than average tempos. The results are very impressive. The tenor Benjamin Butterfield has a more attractive voice than Werner Gura, and he uses it very well. What holds back the Thomas version from reaching Herreweghe II is a relatively smooth performance of the tenor aria. The comfort is there in large supply but the nerves are not on edge at all for Thomas, his chorus, or Butterfield. It's a gorgeous performance, but Herreweghe offers more.

Klemperer is much slower than Thomas; at this slow tempo it would be difficult to convey nervous edge, and Klemperer doesn't attempt to do so. That puts him in Thomas' camp, but Klemperer is not as effective. The opening recitative has insufficient power, the choruses are a little ponderous, and the tenor Nicolai Gedda has a voice I find rather unattractive. Klemperer's performances are better than Harnoncourt's in Jesus' Despair but provide marginal rewards.

Herreweghe's earlier performances on Harmonia Mundi display the same instinctive elements of his more recent ones. However, I find there's a little greater urgency in the newer ones likely benefitting from a quicker tempo. Also, I prefer Werner Gerner in the aria to Hans-Peter Blochwitz.

Gardiner is at the high level of Herreweghe I. The recitatives are excellent as are the chorals. Gardiner is superb in contrasting the moods of the tenor aria; his tenor Howard Crook is very good although not as expressive as Werner Gura for Herreweghe II.

In the next segment, Jesus' Prayer, the disciples are sleeping after their last supper. This does not plese Jesus at all, as he is feeling neglected on the same night that he will be arrested. Needing emotional sustenance, Jesus prays to God three times; of course, that number has a symbolic reference. Musically, the segment has recitatives mainly involving the Evangelist and Jesus, a choral, and a bass recitative and aria. Particularly significant as to text is the bass recitative where Jesus drinks a liquid which contains all the sins of the world; he now owns these sins as he prepares for his coming arrest.

Veldhoven is rather quick in Jesus' Prayer, particularly in the bass aria and the choral. Again, I find little to recommend Geert Smits as Jesus. Peter Kooy does well in the bass recitative and aria, although I have heard him in better voice. The quick choral has a somewhat perfunctory element to it.

Herreweghe I significantly improves on Veldhoven's performances. As Jesus, Ulrik Cold displays much better tonal beauty than Geert Smits.Also, Peter Kooy sounds more attractive of voice than in his performance for Veldhoven. The choral has exemplary weight with superb singing.

Herreweghe II is as effective as the earlier issue except that I prefer the voice of Peter Kooy to Dietrich Henschel. Once again, I am totally taken with the voice of Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist.

Gardiner gets excellent support from Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the Evangelist, Andreas Schimidt as Jesus, and Olaf Bar in the bass recitative and aria. However, Gardiner can not match Herreweghe I in the choral; Gardiner's pace is as quick as Veldhoven's, and the chorus sounds like it's just going through the paces.

Harnoncourt is at Gardiner's level. His chorus displays greater expression and weight than Gardiner's. However, Oliver Widmer is not distinguished in the bass recitative and aria; also, Matthias Goerne continues, in my opinion, to convey excessive drama in his voice. Goerne has a fantastic vocal instrument, but I feel he's overdoing it as if the goal is impress listeners more than portray a specific character.

Klemperer's slow pacing continues unabated. It is very effective in the choral, less so in the bass aria which clocks in at over six minutes; the slow performance from Herreweghe I lasts under five minutes. I find Klemperer's aria to drag slightly. However, he has wonderful vocal support from Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus and Walter Berry in the bass recitative and aria. Overall, this version is better than the others excepting for both Herreweghe versions.

Jeffrey Thomas is as impressive as Klemperer and Herreweghe II. My affection for William Sharp's Jesus just keeps growing. Thomas does not employ any excessively quick tempos, and the choral has fine weight and expressiveness. The only rather ordinary aspect is the singing of Nathaniel Watson in the bass recitative/aria.

Suzuki also provides impressive performances. His quick paced bass aria has great urgency, and the choral is excellent. The solo vocalists are quite good; Peter Kooy here takes the role of Jesus and is almost as effective as Fischer-Dieskau.

Spering provides a lovely and slow choral, although a little greater weight would have been appreciated. Unfortunately, two cuts make this segment a non-starter. Both the bass recitative and aria are gone from this arrangement. I find two problems with the cuts. First, the balance among recitatives, chorals, and arias is disturbed. Second, the bass recitative has great significance in that Jesus drinks and absorbs all the sins and stink of the world. This act prepares him for his crucifixion, eventual reunion with God, and the shedding of sin from humanity. I'm starting to wish that Mendelssohn has messed around with one of his own compositions where no harm could be done instead of with Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Regardless of the quality of Spering's direction, he can't possibly overcome the flagrant cuts made by Mendelssohn who takes perfection and throws it away. Arrogance and bad judgement make Mendelssohn's arrangement a poor substitute. I am interestein hearing from others concerning these cuts and what you think of them.

Part 3 is going to heat up the action as Jesus is arrested and interrogated by the High Priests. So far, my preference for the Herreweghe versions remains strong with Gardiner and Suzuki at the next best level. Spering's revised St. Matthew is looking like a truncated travesty of only historical interest. As for Harnoncourt, I'm not finding it one of the more distinguished versions. A combination of some aggressive direction from Harnoncourt and less than sterling singing joins with Goerne's exaggerated Jesus to provide an interpretation which is only competitive.

 

Feedback to Part 2

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 7, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Spering goes with the two major cuts in this segment, one of them being the aria. It doesn't bother me that some dialogue is cut; I think the text here too wordy. Cutting the aria does bother me. It's a lovely and uplifting piece of vocal music, and I sure don't want it gone simply to adhere to some subsequent revision. I blame Mendelssohn for creating this omission and Spering for his complicity. Just because someone rips some music out of a score doesn't require that anybody follow suit. Put another way, I think it's idiotic to erase one of the best arias from the St. Matthew Passion. Also, there are not a wealth of arias to begin with in this long Passion. I've known for many years that Mendelssohn and I are not on similar wavelengths, and this is just further evidence. (...)
I'm starting to wish that Mendelssohn has messed around with one of his own compositions where no harm could be done instead of with Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Regardless of the quality of Spering's direction, he can't possibly overcome the flagrant cuts made by Mendelssohn who takes perfection and throws it away. Arrogance and bad judgement make Mendelssohn's arrangement a poor substitute. I am interested in hearing from others concerning these cuts and what you think of them. >
It certainly is easy to lament that "the glass is half empty!" from our much later perspective. For the price of a good meal we can go buy a recording that we can play as many times as we want to, at any time of day or night. We can even collect dozens of recordings and compare them point by point.

But remember that nobody had heard ANY of this music for a long time before Mendelssohn produced that famous revival. Don't beat on Mendelssohn for pouring only a half-full glass! He wasn't "ripping music out of a score," he was simply preparing the parts that would be feasible in this revival performance. We should be grateful that he did ANY OF IT and helped to stir interest in the piece. It was a time when people rarely performed music by any dead composers, let alone something as complex as the St Matthew Passion.

Sheesh.

I played continuo in a complete performance a few years ago. Because we did the whole thing, and without changing the instrumentation, does that categorically mean our conductor is a better musician than Mendelssohn?

< Part 3 is going to heat up the action as Jesus is arrested and interrogated by the High Priests. >
I'm eager to hear how Harnoncourt does with aria #60 (NBA numbering), "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand." The two oboes da caccia in there are supposed to portray the squawking of "forsaken chickens" ("verlassnen Kuechlein," bar 34, characterizing the disciples). But it's rare to find a recording where they really play it up.

Donald Satz wrote (May 7, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Brad is on the wrong track in assuming that I lament the fact that Mendelssohn made cuts to the score, making it "half-empty". I know that cuts had to be made; the issue concerns where you make the cuts. I simply feel that his cuts were ill advised; you don't cut any of the best arias or most significant parts of the text. So far, he has cut one outstanding aria and one crucial recitative; I don't think those were good moves. Much of the text to the St. Matthew Passion is verbal filler; cut some of that out.

I think it's sort of funny that I call it "ripping music out" while Brad refers to it as "preparing parts". It just depends on where your starting point happens to be.

Perhaps recordings of Mendelssohn's revival should only be compared to other recordings of the revival. That's up in the air. My position is that potential buyers have to grapple with which recordings to acquire, and that recordings of the Mendelssohn revival do compete with the others. All of this tends to be a moot issue since there's nothing particularly exceptional about Spering's direction to begin with.

Concerning Aria # 60, that's on Harnoncourt's third cd. I'm not even done with the first cd yet. But I'll try to remember those squawking chickens.

Question to Brad? Is disagreement the only response you have when reading my reviews? I also try to be amusing and tell a joke or funny story once in a while. You see, I'm a product of the two minute rock song from the late 1950's which evolved into the four minute more meaningful rock song of the late 1960's. When that stuff devolved into disco, new age music, and mindless re-hashing of the great rock music of the late 1960's, I switched to classical music when I was in my late 30's. In a way, it was like a homecoming since much of my childhood was spent learning music theory and playing the piano and clarinet. I retain the memory of my dad driving me to music lessons during snow storms in Boston where I grew up. He was determined that nothing would interfere with my musical education; what he didn't figure on was that I was going to interfere with it. Anyways, I still tend to go for the short piece of music, and I still want great power and tension in music. Perhaps that explains my desire for power and menace in Bach's Prelude in C minor from Book 1. The work would likely sound fantastic to me on an electric guitar. I am no fan of the acoustical guitar.

One time while in college, Simon & Garfunkle came to the university for a live concert. I was so disappointed that Paul Simon only played an acoustical guitar and that no other instruments were used. To my amazement, a couple of the guys I went with thought that using only acoustical guitar was a great decision. It takes all types to make a world.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 7, 2001):
I just happened to read Schweitzer's description of the first performance of SMP:

"Mendelssohn, who was then just twenty years old, conducted the whole excellently, although it was the first time he had stood before a large orchestra and chorus.* {Footnote} The work had been severely "cut" for this performance. The majority of the arias were omitted; of others, only the orchestral introductions were given; in the part of the Evangelist everything was left out that did not relate to the Passion. The recitative "And the veil of the templfe was rent" had been orchestrated by Mendelssohn.

....The performance took place on the 11th March (1829). The chorus numbered about four hundred....

On the 21st March, Bach's birthday, the work was repeated....The enthusiam was, if possible, even greater than before. Mendelssohn, however, was not quite satisfied with the performance; the chorus and the orchestra had indeed done excellently, but in the soli there had been errors made that put him out of humour."

Perhaps there were no suitable singers for the arias, hence the arias were omitted? It sounds as though Mendelssohn made an attempt to include more arias in this second performance, but the results were not satisfactory.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 8, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Concerning Aria # 60, that's on Harnoncourt's third cd. I'm not even done with the first cd yet. But I'll try to remember those squawking chickens.
Question to Brad? Is disagreement the only response you have when reading my reviews? I also try to be amusing and tell a joke or funny story once in a while. (...) >
No; I agree with most points in your reviews quite often, and I enjoy reading them. I tend to comment on only the parts that stand out as questionable. I'm seriously trying to understand your mode of listening, because it seems strange to me.

Case in point: your comment above about not being done with the first CD yet in Harnoncourt's SMP. I honestly cannot understand how a review can be meaningful if the reviewer has started publishing the review before even listening to the entire piece!

It's especially disconcerting (unintended pun, but a nice one) when the performer being reviewed is one who releases as many "live" recordings as studio recordings. Harnoncourt, Barenboim, Grimaud, Bruggen, etc...whether or not the recording under review is itself "live," clearly it's important to such performers that the listener take the work as a whole. Different sections of the piece do affect one another. A real performance is more than a series of good moments pasted together: the performer and audience are changed by the way the work happens in real time.

I can think of only one Bach piece that is supposed to be heard in installments on different days: the Christmas Oratorio, which is really a series of six separate cantatas. And this ain't it. How can a grand and coherent work such as the SMP be reviewed meaningfully unless the reviewer is doing at least half the listening straight through, from first note to last? (Ditto for reviews of suites, sonatas, and other multi-movement works....) If not, it's too easy to get lost in comparative details! The word "suite" means the movements follow one another, not interrupted by other performances in between....

Your comments today about coming out of a background of very short rock songs do help to explain where you're coming from on this. It seems there should be a term for this style of listening: perhaps "lateral listening" as opposed to sequential?

John Smyth wrote (May 9, 2001):
Donald on Goerne's over-emotion as Jesus:
< However, I've always had the impression that emotions were relatively restrained based on Jesus already knowing about the upcoming betrayal and its necessity; given his leadership position, I think it reasonable that the emotional levels did not get out of hand.
Harnoncourt's version presents two problems. First, Matthias Goerne as Jesus over-emotes and seems frantic at times, as if he had no idea ahead of time about Judas and his betrayal. >
It depends on which gospel you're looking at. Luke plays down Jesus' emotional side quite a bit as compared to Mark. Mark mentions Jesus' indignancy (10:14), cursing (11:21), and terror and anguish, (14:33-34).

I think Goerne's strategy could be justified here.

Donald Satz wrote (May 9, 2001):
John Smyth responds to me:
<< Matthias Goerne as Jesus over-emotes and seems frantic at times, as if he had no idea ahead of time about Judas and his betrayl. >>
< I depends on which gospel you're looking at.... I think Goerne's strategy could be justified here. >
Good point. When faced with a choice, I'll always take the 'inward' approach. I've never looked at any of the gospels. Fact is that my sole source for reading anything of a religious nature comes from CD liner notes. They will be my path to salvation. On the rare occasions that I'm at the Temple with my wife, I leave my reading glasses at home. I just can't seem to remember to bring them along.

In Part 2, I did not fully explain my negativity concerning Goerne's highly emotional displays. Only part of it has anything to do with the Last Supper; the other part deals solely with Goerne's voice. I will provide the missing piece of that puzzle at the beginning of Part 3.

Actually, I already have written the beginning to Part 3, so I might as well also present it now:

In Part 2 of my review, I did not fully explain my unfavorable reaction to what I called Matthew Goerne's over-emoting in his role as Jesus in the Harnoncourt set. Some of my reaction is based on text, but the rest just has to do with Goerne's voice. As I've stated earlier, I find Matthew Goerne to have a fantastic instrument. Its greatest appeal to me is based on its strength, masculine stature/majesty, and tonal beauty. However, I also find that when Goerne takes on a highly emotional posture in the recitatives, those wonderful vocal qualities are greatly reduced. He no longer sounds strong, stature takes a nosedive, and even the tonal beauty loses much in the equation. This surprised and disappointed me; I initally thought that Goerne would be sensational on any emotional level. As usual, I generally expect too much out of mere mortals.

Santu de Silva wrote (May 15, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] My own feeling was that Goerne sounded like an upperclass wimp.

Don't get me wrong; I love members of the upperclass, I love wimps, and I love Goerne. But it just doesn't work here. I blame myself, too. I'm wanting the emotion in the situation to be moderated. I want it presented as a retrospective, not a documentary!

 

Matthäus-Passion BWV 244: Details
Recordings: Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | BWV 244a | BWV 244b
Systemetic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-8 | Part 2: Mvts. 9-20 | Part 3: Mvts. 21-29 | Part 4: Mvts. 30-40 | Part 5: Mvts. 41-50 | Part 6: Mvts. 51-57 | Part 7: Mvts. 58-63b | Part 8: Mvts. 63c-68 | Part 9: Role of the Evangelist
Individual Recordings:
BWV 244 - L. Bernstein | BWV 244 - F. Brüggen | BWV 244 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - R. Chailly | BWV 244 - S. Cleobury | BWV 244 - J. Daus | BWV 244 - D. Fasolis | BWV 244 - W. Furtwängler | BWV 244 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 244 - W. Gönnenwein | BWV 244 - P. Goodwin | BWV 244 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 244 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 244 - R. Jacques | BWV 244 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 244 - O. Klemperer | BWV 244 - T. Koopman | BWV 244 - S. Koussevitzky | BWV 244 - S. Kuijken | BWV 244 - F. Lehmann | BWV 244 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 244 - E.&R. Mauersberger | BWV 244 - H. Max | BWV 244 - P. McCreesh | BWV 244 - W. Mengelberg | BWV 244 - K. Münchinger | BWV 244 - R. Norrington | BWV 244 - G. Oberfrank | BWV 244 - S. Ozawa | BWV 244 - A. Parrott | BWV 244 - G. Ramin | BWV 244 - S. Rattlr | BWV 244 - K. Richter | BWV 244 - H. Rilling | BWV 244 - H.J. Rotzsch | BWV 244 - H. Scherchen | BWV 244 - G. Solti | BWV 244 - C. Spering | BWV 244 - M. Suzuki | BWV 244 - J.v. Veldhoven | BWV 244 - B. Walter | BWV 244 - F. Werner | BWV 244 - M. Wöldike
Articles:
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [T.N. Towe] | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) [U. Golomb] | St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt [D. Satz] | The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [J. Rifkin] | The Relationship between BWV 244a (Trauermusik) and BWV 244b (SMP Frühfassung) [T. Braatz] | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - Early History (A Selective, Annotated Bibliography) [W. Hoffman] | Spiritual Sources of Bach's St. Matthew Passion [W. Hoffman] | Bach and the "Great Passion" [D.G. Lebut Jr.] | The Genesis of Bach's `Great Passion': 1724-29 [W. Hoffman] | Early Performances of Bach's SMP [T. Braatz]

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Last update: ýNovember 1, 2010 ý20:18:53