Bach: Matthäus Passion
The magnificent series of complete Bach cantatas by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque is crowned here with their definitive recording of Bachs greatest choral work, the Passion According to St. Matthew, available both as an audio CD recording and a DVD video. The musical Passion, a form introduced in Protestant churches on Good Friday by about 1700, was brought to its highest point of perfection by Bach in this work, first performed in 1727. Under Bach, the Passion performances became the musical highpoint of the church year in Leipzig. He appears to have composed five Passions, but only two survive. In any case, even in his day the St. Matthew Passion was universally regarded as the greatest of them. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, founded in 1979 by Ton Koopman, is a group of musicians from all over the world with a particular passion for the Baroque. Their recordings have won numerous awards. The Amsterdam Baroque Choir was founded in 1992. The choir consists mainly of young Dutch professional singers. Born in Zwolle, Holland, in 1944, Ton Koopman decided very early in his musical studies to specialize in the 17th and 18th centuries, using authentic instruments combined with a performing style based on sound scholarship. Koopmans extensive activities as a soloist and conductor have been recorded on a large number of LPs and CDs for labels including Erato, Teldec, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon. Begun in 1994, Koopmans Bach Cantata series was called "the recording project of the nineties" by The Guardian, and was awarded the 1997 Deutsche Schallplattenpreis "Echo Klassik". As with the cantata series, this album includes the scholarly contributions of Professor Christoph Wolff, one of the worlds leading experts on the music of Bach. Recorded in March 2005 at St. Joris Church, Amersfoort, before a live audience.
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If the reader may permit me, I would like to say I have found I am only able to truly approach this music by really forcing myself to 'learn to listen to music' all over again (having been immersed in Mahler's symphonies too deeply) with a necessary great deal of patience as this fugal baroque music requires on the one hand a keen ear for the details of the many melodies, as well as a long span of attention - especially a work on as grand a scale as this Matthaeus Passion.
Now that I have had the luck to have found myself a working place in the magnificent Dom church in Utrecht (not a cathedral anymore since the Reformation) - where the Matthaeus Passion is performed each year, as in so many places in the Netherlands - this has been for me just the right 'excuse', or better: the necessary extra 'push in the right direction', to really try to immerse myself into one of Bach's greatest works.
ABOUT THE RECORDING/PERFORMANCE itself, which seems to be in the tradition of the Historically Informed Performances. But whatever the 'tradition' in which it 'fits', this performance speaks with the deepest love and dedication towards this music, making - to the ears (and heart) of this particular listener - an absolutely convincing argument. The beautifully naturally recorded sound has all of the instruments embedded in the warm aura provided by the sympathetic acoustics of the recording venue, the St. Joris (St. George) church in Amersfoort. The recording is live, which may have added to the drama, but luckily there is very little audience noise indeed, and then only very distant, never distracting one's attention.
This performance is mellifluous, naturally flowing and dramatically concentrated (fitting on two CD's; total playing time: appr. 2h 34min), gripping one's attention from beginning to end. The playing and singing, while mellifluous, is at the same time exquisitely characterized and with a - at least to the ears of this particular listener - nicely appropriate sense of forward dramatic momentum, offering the best of both worlds maybe: radiant beauty as well as freshness.
The instrumentalists' voices, while being allowed to bloom to the full, are always at the service of the 'storytelling' or 'drama', making the recording - at least to my ears - truly one 'aus einem Guss' and really holding one's attention from beginning to end. The choir sounds 'large', but I am unable to compare with other recordings (I would like to hear Sir Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt or Philippe Herreweghe), so I will by saying that I truly love what I hear, as the singing is incisive and clear, but with rounded tone. Almost all of the same is true for all of the soloists, I believe, their characterization always being astutely intelligent and dramatic.
This performance, to my ears, speaks of great love and dedication - maybe even devotion - of this conductor (and performers) towards this music. I am sure this particular (historically informed) recording ranks way up there with the very best recordings of this work. I would like to recommend this beautifully packaged 2-CD set (including 64 page booklet with an essay by Bach scholar Christoph Wolff) to anyone without reservation.
For my taste, Koopman is the best of the greats of Bach choral conducting; his tempi are suitably brisk, but do not attain the (for me) sometimes disturbingly fleet tempi of Gardiner and Herreweghe. In this performance, the tempi are sometimes a bit faster than in his earlier recording. Overall, I would prefer this one, primarily because of the choice of performers: Joerg Duermueller and Ekkehard Abele are better in their roles (Duermueller has to be one of the best evangelists I've heard), and Cornelia Samuelis gives a performance that is far more historically sensitive and appropriate for the religious nature of this music than Barbara Schlick in Koopman's earlier version; her performance of 'Aus Liebe', and the duet with Bogna Bartosz ('So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen') are among the highlights of this recording. Here, there's a female singer (Bogna Bartosz) for the alto parts, where earlier Koopman used a countertenor (Kai Wessel); they're both excellent, as are both singers who do the bass arias and solo parts. I have to say that I prefer Christoph Prégardien in the earlier recording to Paul Agnew's sometimes overstated and excessively dramatic renderings in this one. I'd go with the new version mainly for the better evangelist and soprano, and a somewhat better Jesus.
Comparing Koopman to other conductors, of the historically-informed-performance crowd, the big names seem to be Herreweghe 1998 St. Matthew Passion and Gardiner St. Matthew Passion, both of whom are, for my taste, occasionally a bit too brisk for the Matthew. I have a further beef with Gardiner that people who don't know German might not notice: some of his singers (Anthony Rolfe Johnson included) have a German pronunciation that does not sound quite right to me, as a person who has spent a long time studying German literature. Gardiner's approach works a lot better, for my taste, in the John, and for that, I find it's really hard to choose between him and Koopman. In general, I don't listen much to the older performances on modern instruments, but I have to say that Peter Schreier (sadly apparently no longer available) and Helmuth Rilling St. Matthew Passion both deserve a mention as outstanding performances (of which I prefer Schreier); Klemperer's passion is one that has clearly survived the horrors of WWII, and while it's an outstanding artistic document of its own time, it does not, for me, quite represent what I feel Bach's music should.
I should note that, having followed some of the scholarly debate between Rifkin, Parrott, and Koopman, and Gloeckner on whether one voice per part or a larger choir is more appropriate for this work, I am not convinced that Bach's own practice was more likely to have been one voice per part (I find Gloeckner's 2011 piece on the issue a very important blow against the OVPP argument), though it is probably unlikely that he would have had mass choirs of the modern sort either. That being said, they key to a recording is whether or not it works: if the singers doing each voice don't really hold up, then a OVPP recording won't match one with a full choir, and conversely, a full choir might well blur the music out of recognition. The reason why I prefer the Koopman to McCreesh's recording St. Matthew Passion (though in all fairness, I should say I've only heard clips of the latter) is not ideological or academic; although the clarity and general impression of OVPP does sound great in the choral pieces, I find myself getting a bit put off by the style of too many of McCreesh's singers in the solos. And though McCreesh's instrumental forces are excellent, like Koopman's, his tempi are occasionally a little slow (I know, I'm very picky!). Also, the size of the choir really makes much more of a difference in a live concert--and the placement of singers (Bach's singers would generally have been up in the galleries, with the organist, and actually behind most of the congregation) is also a major factor; since I tend to listen to music on my headphones, the effects are slightly lost for me.