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Im, Fink, Chappuis; Güra, Lehtipuu, Weisser, Wolff, Kataja; RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Jacobs. Text and translation. Harmonia Mundi HMC 802156.58 (2)
With so many choices to be made before performing the St. Matthew Passion, it's best to start by briefly noting the choices made here. The performance is uncut, the members of the thirty-six-voice choir include adult female sopranos and altos (with a few adult male altos), a chorus of boys is heard on the chorale tune descants, and a lute plays the bass aria "Komm, süsses Kreuz." (The gamba version is offered as an appendix.) One of the two continuo groups includes a harpsichord, there is virtually no ornamentation on the da capo repeats, and the fermatas in the chorales are unadorned. The arias are divided between pairs of soloists in each vocal category, with two male altos eerily effective in the small roles of the false witnesses. The overall result of all these choices is a real sense of conviction in the performance, a sense of rightness and unity of approach to the work that leaves a lasting impression of intermingled beauty (in so much of the music-making) and unease (in the unresolved, disquieting ending of the work).
Conductor René Jacobs achieves long paragraphs of storytelling, often managing to make the choral contributions continue the thoughts of the soloists without the slightest break. Jacobs tends to find a single tempo that works for each of the da capo pieces, forgoing any adjustment in the B section. He produces real strength of purpose and certainty in pieces such as the alto aria "Sehet Jesus hat die hand" but also blazing speed for the occasional heated passages such as the Evangelist's "Und siehe da." The singers of the RIAS Kammerchor are full participants in the drama, and the players of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin also manifestly understand what is happening at each moment. The two oboes d'amore produce something remarkably like sobbing in "Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt." The notoriously tricky moment of the aria "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben," accompanied only by one flute and two oboes da caccia with no continuo underpinning, is brilliantly achieved. Soloists and instrumentalists use only the most minimal vibrato, reserving it for special expressiveness, yet maintain admirable intonation. The continuo group is always in support, but there is nothing flashy, nothing that calls attention to itself.
Werner Güra's Evangelist is sung simply, almost boyishly much of the time, leaving room for overt drama at the moment of Jesus's betrayal. Johannes Weisser is a warm-toned Christus, though, like the bass soloist Arttu Kataja, he is sometimes recorded backwardly. Sunhae Im and Bernarda Fink create a marvelous blend in their duet. The violin soloist Bernhard Forck is a sensational player. In his solos he plays Bach's written notes so freely that they sound like ornamentation. All of the strings reserve a lush tone for special moments such as the pouring of ointment on Christ's body or the withdrawal for prayer.
Often a DVD documentary included with a CD will be interesting in prospect but disappointing in reality, but the one here is worthwhile. The unusual layout of musicians — two entire ensembles facing each other — is shown. Jacobs makes provocative comments about the way the sound of flutes is associated with sin and the way the sensuality of operatic music in Bach's day is also found in the sacred music. And Forck notes that negotiations between Jacobs (used to having his own way with his own players) and the Akademie (an ensemble ordinarily operating without a conductor) were quite pointed. This last situation perhaps accounts for the tremendous integrity of the final result.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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