BACH: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 – Amaryllis Dieltiens, soprano / Siri Karoline Thornhill, soprano / Tim Mead, alto / Matthew White, alto /Gerd Türk, tenor (Evangelist) / Julian Podger, tenor /Charles Daniels, tenor / Peter Harvey, bass / Sebastian Noack, bass / The Netherlands Bach Society/ Kampen Boys Choir / Jos van Veldhoven – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 32511 (3 discs), 69:51, 54:38, 40:56 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
This is such a compelling audio experience that I’m tempted to start my review by talking about the sound recording rather than the performance itself. But since the musical decisions and execution of Jos van Veldhoven and his Holland-based forces are essential to the success of this recording sonically, so a discussion of the performance will inevitably include reference to and praise of the recording.
The St. Matthew Passion lends itself to stereo treatment because of the disposition of the choral and instrumental forces into two groups. I remember my brother’s showing off the prominent stereo effects in Mogens Wöldike’s Vanguard recording from the late ‘60s. That was a sterling performance and recording for its day, but a comparison with the new Channel Classics offering would be revelatory in suggesting how far recordings of Baroque classics have come both interpretively and sonically since then. As I recall, there was an inevitable bloat to the sound of the Wöldike recording, while van Veldhoven’s rendering is the model of period-authentic leanness and cleanness of texture.
In terms of disposition of his forces, van Veldhoven takes advantage of surround sound, a natural given that the two groups of performers in the work are unequal partners. As Veldhoven writes in his notes to the recording, “it is interesting to look at Coro I as a soloists’ choir and Coro II as a ripieno group. Rather than a symmetrical double-choir composition, the result is a complex, asymmetrical single-choir Passion.” Most of the important arias issue from Coro I, which essentially is entrusted with telling the Passion story, and in the majority of choruses, Coro II merely doubles Coro I. This is also true of the instrumental forces. The players accompanying Coro I get all the solos, while the players assigned to Coro II mostly double the players in the first group.
This is the result of a choice by Bach’s librettist, Picander, to divide the choir into two factions, the Faithful (followers of Jesus) and the Daughters of Zion, who represent the city of Jerusalem. So in the famous opening chorus “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,” the Faithful invite the Daughters to mourn for Jesus while the Daughters respond antiphonally with a series of one-word questions about Jesus and his divine nature.
Van Veldhoven goes on to say that his “endeavor was to make the asymmetry . . . audible in the sound of the ensembles.” So he added eight ripieno choristers to the four soloists in Coro I to give it a fuller sound. Meanwhile, Coro II is composed of just four singers who must sing both solos and choruses. Van Veldhoven adds, “they have a double function: they are mostly (independent) ripieno singers, but a sudden solo upgrades them to genuine concertato singers.” Just so, when one of the Coro II singers suddenly has a rare solo, the effect is exiting as the singer suddenly steps forward and delivers just behind your left or right shoulder. The same is true, of course, in the bona fide double-chorus numbers such as No. 1, where the give-and-take between the two choruses adds to the excitement of the performance.
In tutti passages—where the entire ensemble delivers large choral utterances such as the cry “Laß ihn kruezigen!” (“Let him be crucified!” No. 45b) or “Andern hat er geholfen und kann ihm selber nicht helfen” (“He saved others, Himself He cannot save,” No. 58d)—the effect in surround sound is electrifying. The same is true of the numerous chorales in the work, where the payoff of surround sound is to make you feel as if you’re a member of the congregation (or at least of the live audience in whose presence this recording was made at Gote Kerk in Naarden).
Fortunately, this is not just an exciting performance from a conceptual standpoint, but it is also very well sung and played. Soprano Amaryllis Dieltiens and tenor Gerd Türk, as the Evangelist, come in for special praise; their signing is attractive and their delivery of the text impeccable. Bass Peter Harvey brings both dignity and pathos to his portrayal of Jesus. But most of the other singers turn in fine performances as well—even the two male altos, though you have to inure yourself to their rather hooty delivery (especially that of Tim Mead); it goes with the territory, I suppose. Even if it isn’t a period-authentic best practice, I’d prefer female altos, I must confess.
The playing of the Netherlands Bach Society instrumentalists, including the many solo numbers that include accompaniment by solo violin or oboe are, is beautifully expressive throughout and captured in sound that is clear and truthful. Add to that fidelity the power and immediacy of surround sound, and you have a listening experience that should please no matter how often you return to it. You should also appreciate Channel Classics’ lavish packaging as well; the set comes with a nearly 200-page hardback book that includes, besides the libretto and appreciations of Bach’s masterpiece, page after page of color reproductions of Dutch art portraying the Crucifixion. Superb, and recommended unreservedly!
— Lee Passarella
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