Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Crowe, Rice; Güra, Morscheck, Phan, Brook, Grunenwald: Schola Cantorum of Oxford, Maîtrise de Paris, Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Nelson. EuroArts 3079654
Two new releases offer stylistically varied but highly moving interpretations of J. S. Bach's monumental Saint Matthew Passion. It is a testament to this masterwork that it remains so vital to our cultural life and is viable through so many different artistic visions.
These two recordings are as interesting for their differences as for their similarities. The BR Klassik release presents a performance that features historically- informed stylistic elements, period instruments and a pitch level lower than A=440. In addition to giving the listener a closer idea of how an ideal performance in Bach's lifetime might have sounded, the instruments and lower pitch create a uniquely warm sound aura. Peter Dijkstra retains tight but not autocratic control over the music and creates an emotionally charged, vibrant interpretation. The Bavarian Radio Chorus lives up to its reputation as one of the world's great professional choruses. Individual members are heard in the ancillary roles, with the exception of Pilate, here sung by baritone soloist Michael Nagy. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson gives a loving portrayal of Jesus. The highpoint of this recording is the performance of Julian Prégardien as the Evangelist. Prégardien brings such depth of emotion and understanding to the role that one is fully convinced he is living it. The quartet of soloists is world-class.
This production features various changes of lighting to highlight aspects of the drama. Interspersed on the DVD are paintings depicting moments in the narration. These paintings, drawn from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, are by such luminaries as Rembrandt, Dürer, Grünewald, Holbein and van der Weyden, among others. My only quibble with this release is that neither the CD nor the DVD version offers translations of Bach's text. While this is not really necessary for those of us who know the Saint Matthew Passion well, it could inhibit newcomers who do not speak or read German from selecting it as their first, possibly only, recording of the work.
John Nelson has a long and deep association with the Saint Matthew Passion, which makes this Blu-ray release that much more welcome. Here he uses modern instruments and pitch levels, thus benefitting from their strengths — specifically, pure internal intonation and supreme musical flexibility on the part of his performers. Nelson's vision of the Passion, steeped over decades of performances, is expansive and embracing. He employs the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, a largely collegiate ensemble, as his chorus. They prove more than up to the task. They are wonderfully musical throughout, and their energy in the turbo choruses has a genuine dramatic edge. Werner Güra offers an earnest, highly musical rendition of the Evangelist, and Stephen Morscheck delivers a dramatic, almost overpowering depiction of Jesus. Again, the solo quartet is uniformly excellent. Unlike Dijkstra, Nelson calls on his soloists, here enhanced by bass Bertrand Grunenwald, to perform the ancillary roles. While this lends a fine luster to these minor roles, it does so at the expense of putting the work in a more universal context; when sung by chorus members, these roles show that the characters, like us, are in fact ordinary people. Included on the disc is an hour-long, highly interesting documentary that shows Nelson working with various performers during the rehearsal process.
So, which recording is to be preferred? It's hard to say. Both have much to recommend them. If you are looking for a recording that shows an ideal performance of the Passion as Bach might have envisioned it, the BR Klassik release has the edge. If you are more interested in a performance that emphasizes the eternal pull this work has, then Nelson's EuroArts recording is the way to go. Either way, you will not be disappointed. Both are welcome additions to the impressive library of Saint Matthew Passion recordings.
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