BACH: St. Matthew Passion – Werner Gura (Evangelist)/ Johannes Weisser (Christus)/ Sunhae Im & Christina Roterberg (sop.)/ Bernarda Fink & Marie-Claude Chappuis (alto)/ Topi Lehtipuu & Fabio Trumpy (tenor)/ Konstantin Wolff & Arttu Kataja (bass)/ RIAS Chamber Chorus/ Academie fur Alte Musik Berlin/ Rene Jacobs – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMC 802156.58 (2 SACDs+DVD: 16:9), 2:39:05 *****:
Bach’s Matthew Passion, one of the monumental works in the history of music, has also undergone some of the most tormented musicological arguments as well. Since the one-to-a-part movement thrust its way into prominence, this great work, as performed according to the Rifkin doctrine, hardly seems grand at all. And when performed in Bach’s first revision (as here), where he adds another organ to the back choir of the Thomas Church and calls it a “great” passion, the problems of insufficient ensemble become all too plain. According to Bach’s own words in his Short, but most Necessary Draft on a well-regulated Church Music, with some modest Thoughts on the Decline of the same, his comments suggest two 12 to 16 voice choirs for this work. And in fact, while many of his choral pieces do indeed only have one “part” per voice, has anyone in the modern musicological world ever heard of sharing? Evidently Rene Jacobs has, for though he doesn’t completely reject the premise that sometimes these small forces were used, it hardly can be said that this represents Bach’s desires on the subject, or that this was in any way the normal practice. In this recording, Jacobs freely admits that he is not here to reconstruct an historical performance, practice, or setting, but to freely take advantage of a modern situation while continually making reference to what he thinks Bach had in mind for this piece. As a result we have 80 singers and players, divided into two choirs and two orchestras, one larger than the other.
The notes to this recording focus primarily on the spatial divide among these forces. The Thomas church in Leipzig had two organs at the time of the 1737 premiere of the revised piece, one in the front, and one in the rear. Contrary to the normal practice of dividing the ensembles up into left and right at the front of the church, Bach had them split east and west, or front and back. Mendelssohnian numbers in this piece like at the performance he gave in 1829 surely would not work, but considerably smaller groups would and do, not unlike what Bach specifies. But Jacobs goes further in his theory, calling the front choir and orchestra the place where the real action of the passion occurs, while the second grouping forms commentary or even contradiction to the gospel texts, interspersing them along the way. Jacob’s theory is much more involved and comprehensive than I can explain here, but it works very well and makes a lot of sense.
Just eyeing the roster gives one a good sense of the quality of the singing on this disc; Especially notable are Werner Gura’s Evangelist, surely the best I have ever heard on disc, in a style that emphasizes narrative qualities without sacrificing emotion, but refraining from indulging the narrator in emotional tones that more properly belong to the arias. And Bernarda Fink is simply spectacular, though singling her out is in no way meant to denigrate the remarkable contributions of the others. Jacob’s orchestra is top-notch as usual, and the spatial aspects of this score are brilliantly captured in the surround sound, from the softest and most delicate moments to the almost overwhelming sonic splendor of the amassed full forces. The accompanying 48-minute DVD provides some nice insights into what went into the making of this recording. This is easily—easily—the best Matthew Passion I have ever heard on disc, and its acquisition is urged upon all!