BACH St Matthew Passion. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hanssler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Edition Bachakadamie Vol.74

St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

Christiane Oelze soprano
Ingeborg Danz alto
Michael Schade tenor (Evangelist & Arias)
Matthias Goerne bass (Jesus)
Thomas Quasthoff bass (Arias)

Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth Rilling
on modern instruments

Includes full libretto and notes with translations in German, French, English and Spanish.

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.074
3 discs [2’54:51] mid-price

by Ng Yeuk Fan

The St Matthew Passion, written in the year 1727, is the second of three (surviving) passions by J.S. Bach. The others being the St John (1724) and the St Mark Passions (1731). Only parts of the latter now remain. However, the St Matthew Passion is way beyond the other two passions, or anything customary of its day, for its sheer scale of conception, its internal and external dimensions! Indeed, it has been referred to as the Great Passion by some Bach scholars.

In this “Great Passion”, there are individual voices which ‘play’ the roles of Jesus, Judas, Pilate, among others, in the forms of dialogue, arias, recitatives and arioso, in a sense acting out the libretto while the Evangelist narrates the passion story. Punctuating these are large choral settings based on some of the most popular church hymns of the day. The B minor Mass lacks recitatives, ariosi and certain types of aria; the St John dispenses with large-scale chorale settings and some kinds of accompanied recitative – but the St Matthew embraces all these forms within its sacred conception. Such a design surpasses everything previously written, the variety of forms and devices chosen for their ability to confer dramatic structure and intensity to the Passion story – so much so that parallels have been drawn between it and the most representative genre of that age – the Baroque opera.

Nonetheless, Bach’s St Matthew Passion contradicts theories that it is possibly a secular work, for the nature of its musical elaboration is clearly typical of the church style of his day. By this evidence and more, it is clear to scholars that the St Matthew Passion hence forms the very pinnacle of vocal works destined for church festivals rather than the dramatic opera stage.

St. Matthew Passion First Part
I Exordium
II The Anointing in Bethany
III Juda’s Betrayal
IV The Last Supper
V Jesus’s despair in the Mount of Olives
VI The Prayer on the Mount of Olives
VII The Seizure of Christ

Second Part
VIII Exordium
IX His Interrogation by the High Priests
V Peter’s Denial
XI Judas in the Temple
XII Jesus before Pilate
XIII The Scourging of Jesus
XIV Simon of Cyrene
XV The Crucifixtion
XVI The Descent from the Cross
XVII The Burial

The Passion story is divided into several actions (see box), before and after the Sermon on the Mount of Olives. These make up the main scenes of the St Matthew Passion for which J.S. Bach provided music; setting them to a libretto written by Christian Friedrich Henrici.

The opening chorus “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (“Come ye daughters, share my mourning”), has always been one of the most inspired of all music to me. I remember spinning this movement in the silence of my own room whenever I feel very down – the lifting phrases, alternating between the winds and the strings seem to rise into heaven, carrying me with it; while in the background, a persistent ostinato bass drives in a feeling of the impending, the inevitable. I would always be moved to tears.

Helmuth Rilling captures this essence most movingly, one hears a cutting sadness, made all the more driving by an interestingly efficient articulation. It creates a sense of pressing genuflection. It demands fear. A sense of fearful gratitude – “All sin for our sake bearing, else would we die despairing”. “Believe!”, Rilling cries in this music: “Believe!!” The entire orchestral and choral ensemble responds with such a fantastic eagerness of sound as the movement draws to an end – how better to set the stage for real drama to unfold ?

Helmuth Rilling Rilling’s reading is by no means perfect. But in such a large and long work, few productions can ever claim perfection. There are some phrases here and there in which one would hear a little choral harshness, some imbalance between orchestral parts; but these are inevitable. Rilling’s very fine reading catches the essential in this music with minimal sacrifice to details.

Listen also to how he highlights the rarified individual parts in CD 1 Track 27, which then leads into the very exciting double chorus, stratified as it were, into three levels of contrasting excitment!

Listen to CD 3 Track 10, “Am Abend” (No.64 “At evening”) to hear Rilling’s subtle control of the string section to paint a picture of insensible and detached loneliness. Elsewhere, he makes many similar remarkable and interesting use of Bach’s orchestral writing to underline the dramatic impact of the Passion story.

The Bach Collegium Stuttgart supports with miraculous accompaniment under Rilling’s direction. This group of first class artists are assured soloists that play together with clean ensemble work. They are full of virtuosity, yet sensitive, subtle and always retaining a sense of proportion. Soloists deserving specific mention include the absolutely great oboe and flute section. Listen also to the fascinating string ensemble work for the opening of CD2 Track 13 “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” (No.42 “Give me back my Lord”). This are mere examples. Truly, they are the most unsung of the heros here – working wonders quietly in the back ground, bringing out the best in the solo or choral voices.

Michael Schade can be at parts a raw and chilling Evangelist, full of dramatic weight and intensity. He relegates beauty of tone to second place and plays his narrator role with much vigour. One senses an assured technique, but may be at times forced to disagree with his much too buccal tone. This can get irritating but one forgives on the account that he fulfills Rilling’s dramatic reading. Hear the uncontainable excitement in his voice in his beautiful rendition of “O Schmerz!” (No.19 “O grief!”) on CD1 Track 19.

quasthoff.jpg 120x142 Thomas Quasthoff (left), who takes all the bass arias, should be complimented in his account of the aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!” He has a bright ring to his bass voice, a nice change to other overly mellow basses. Sample also his beautiful rendition of “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (No.65 “Make thee clean, my heart, from sin”) on CD3 Track 11. Some remarkable artistry there!

Jesus is played by the authoritative voice of Matthias Goerne. At once full of presence, his bass has an aura that is illuminating. This makes for an epic, sometimes overbearing Jesus, contrasting with Andreas Schimdt’s sensitive portrayal on Gardiner’s Archiv version (427 648-2), but nevertheless it is still apt and effective. Hear him at his best in CD1 Track 11 – “Trinken alle daraus” (No.11 “Drink ye all of it” ) – Such a glorious voice!

breu-crucifix.jpg 150x246

The Crucifixion (1524), by Jrg Breu the Elder

Christiane Oelze has an impeccable technique, with a lovely light and yet dark timbre, somewhat similar to a boy’s timbre but nonetheless unmistakably mature. She colours it very well for her rendition of “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” (No.8 “Break and die, Thous dearest heart” – CD1 Track 8) and her aria “Ich will dir mein Herz schenken” (No.13 – CD1 Track 13) is as good as it can get. However, there is an incompatibility in the voices of the two leading ladies which make the soprano and alto duet (No.27 “Behold, my saviour now is taken”) on CD 1 Track 27 somewhat disturbing.

Bach wrote some of the most beautiful arias, ever, for the alto voice, in his St.Matthew Passion. Ingeborg Danz makes the most of them. Her “Erbame dich” is certainly one of the best that I have heard. This version benefits from Rilling’s romanticized treatment somewhat. I have never heard it done this way but it is convincing – legato lines are incensed with a gentle moody lilt, gracefully supporting her sorrowful voice. Mention must also be made of the solo violin here for its emphatically evocative playing. Hear also CD2 Track 23, Knnen Trnen meiner Wangen (No.52 “Be my weeping and my wailing”). Elsewhere on CD3 Track 5, “Ach Golgatha!”, Ingeborg Danz has a slight operatic largeness, somewhat inappropriate, but her beautiful alto voice still compels.

The Gchinger Kantorei Stuttgart is a fantastic chorus. Choral settings are remarkably mellifluous – hear the famous “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (No.54 “O sacred head sore wounded”) on CD2 Track 25, taken close to perfection. In the important “La ihn kreuzigen!” – “Let him be crucified!” – on CD 2 Track 20, and the following chorus, there is a hint of insufficiency, a lacking in conviction somewhat, but their tight ensemble work remains flawless. Also sample the double chorus 66b on CD3 Track 12 “Herr wir haben gedacht..” for much choral excitment.

Helmuth Rilling’s reading of the Passion takes into account Bach’s predilection for dramatic intensity and in a sense fulfills the Passion’s internal desire to be dramatised. What we hear becomes very moving passages not removed from their original intentions to inform, to teach, and to touch. If Bach was his own dramaturg, Rilling is this production’s visual director, for he creates ‘scenes’ out of the St Matthew – not mere audio movements. This version should certainly count among the best available today.

709: 25.1.2000 Ng Yeuk Fan

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