Bach: Matthäus-Passion

Hannah Morrison, Sophie Harmsen, Tilman Lichdi (Evangelist & arias), Peter Harvey, Christian Immler (Jesus), Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
164:28 (3 CDs in a box)
Carus 82.285 (also 82.286 SACDs in Digibook)

I do not find this a particularly vivid or colourful performance, though it is very polished. The two cori (16 voices and 14 respectively) and the two orchestras ( strings in each) sound indistinguishable, so that our identification with coro II in O Schmerz, for example is weakened. The soloists are just that – they sing the arias of both cori, but sing in neither coro the rest of the time. The rather indistinct photograph on p.17 of the accompanying booklet shows the cori in a single semi-circle with no visible break, and the two orchestras equally welded together, with the Evangelist and Jesus standing out in front in what is clearly a live performance.

The booklet has been edited sloppily: at the foot of p. 22 there is no reference to a fagotto or organo, nor a liuto in orchestra I as it does in Orchestra II, all of which are clearly audible in orchestra I, where a lute plays continuo with the organ accompanying the Evangelist. Are there two violas da gamba, lutes and fagotti, or is one of each shared between the orchestras, like the solo singers? More importantly, where is the evidence that a lute was used in this (1736) version of the Matthew? This together with the heavy bass line – a 16’ is present in the Evangelist’s accompaniment as well as in arias like 6: Buß und Reu  – produces a rather slow-paced narrative.

In Kuhnau’s time as Cantor, the lute was a regular part of the continuo group (Laurence Dreyfus: Bach’s Continuo Group  (Harvard, 1987), pp171/2), but the Trauerode is the only place where Bach specifies the lute as a continuo instrument. There is the brief obbligato part in Betrachte  in the Johannes-Passion, and in Raphäel Pichon’s recording of the reconstructed Funeral Music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen  (BWV 244a) (reviewed in EMR November 2014), the lute was entrusted with the obligato gamba part from the parodied Komm süßes Kreuz  from the Matthew Passion, but I am not convinced. Is there evidence for wider use?

Worse, on p.2 where the soloists are listed, the bass arias are given to Peter Harvey while Jesus is sung by Christian Immler; yet on p. 22 when all the musical resources are given, Harvey is listed as Jesus, and p.23 has Immler singing the arias. This is not the case: it is Harvey singing the arias. This kind of mistake should not have slipped through.

Tempi are pretty moderate – this performance runs to three CDs – and there is a good deal of carefully managed rubato within phrases in the arias, so there is plenty of breathing space; sometimes this leads to an actual change of tempo, as in the middle section of 8: Blute nur  for example. Hannah Morrison, the soprano, is quite excellent – a lovely clear voice, with beautiful phrasing especially in 13: Ich will dir mein Herze schenken  – and as always it is a joy to have Peter Harvey, the most musical of all Bach singers, though adding a 16’ and a lute to the continuo line in 57: Komm süßes Kreuz  as well as the gamba and organ makes the ensemble less flexible as well as thickening the translucent sound. The alto, Sophie Harmsen, is less of a HIP specialist with a more marked vibrato than the others, and often sings more dramatically, as in 51: Erbarm es Gott  and 59: Ach Golgotha. The Evangelist is sung by Tilman Lichdi, who sings the tenor arias of both cori as well. He has a beguiling voice, and it all sounds very smooth and well articulated. I missed the jangle of the great F# major chord of a decent-sized organ tuned pretty mean in the middle of the Blitze und Donner  that introduces the fiery furnace of hell as well as the distinctive sesquialtera with the cantus firmus, whose articulation is managed better in the slowly-paced opening chorus than in O Mensch, bewein.

Small ‘character parts’ are excellently sung by members of the cori (but sometimes singing in the wrong choir!), though sounding a little distant. The choral sound is smooth and singerly, but it doesn’t have the slightly rawer edge that you might expect of a choir that is influenced by the sound of the period instruments, as Bernius claims to be after in the booklet. This may partly be due to the rather boomy acoustics of the church where this was recorded last March (clearly a different venue than the more concert-hall set-up where the photo of the live performance was taken.) But then this choir sings music from the 17th to the 21st centuries and is not in that sense a specialist HIP coro. What does come out clearly is the attention given to projecting the words with clarity and intelligence, and this is a hall-mark of this performance.

As far as the new (2012) Carus edition is concerned, there is insufficient detail in the (shortened) version of Andreas Glöckner’s note on Bach’s ‘great passion’ to be clear about the differences from the NBA. My own experience of using the Carus parts for the cantatas is that some of the phrasing seems to be taken directly from the old Bach-Gesellschaft and has not been informed by recent scholarship. When a music publisher sponsors a recording using a new edition, it would be good practice to know what major editorial decisions have been taken and why, as was the case with Hans-Christoph Rademann’s B minor Mass  with the Freiburger Barockorchester, using the new Carus edition, reviewed in August 2015. With reference to the layout, there is a tantalising reference in Glöckner’s note to the putting in order of the ‘swallow’s nest’ organ in 1727, the instrument in the gallery high at the east end of the nave, and he suggests that Bach may have put his ripieno soprano line there, while the two main choirs and orchestras performed side by side in the west gallery.

This is a luxuriant performance, with the text clearly understood and well-presented. The sound is beautifully produced and it is difficult to fault the overall conception. There are some matters that will not pass muster judged on the strictest HIP criteria, including the lute, and I find the whole sound a bit too smooth. But it is a powerful presentation and would woo anyone unsure as to whether they might like period instruments, but likes their Bach caressed reverentially yet with fervour.

David Stancliffe