Bach/Mendelssohn: Matthäus Passion (1841)

Jörg Dürmüller Evangelist, Tenor arias, Marcos Fink Jesus, Judith can Wanroij, Helena Rasker, Maarten Koningsberger SAB, Elske te Lindert Ancilla 1, Chantal Nijsingh Ancilla 2, Minou Tuijp Testis 1, Arjen van Gijssel Testis 2, The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Consensus Vocalis, Jan Willem de Vriend
111:39 (2 CDs)
Challenge Classics CC72661

Though entirely recognizable as the Matthew Passion, and giving us an insight into the important role Mendelssohn played in the transmission of the performing tradition, there are some surprises in this live performance, captured on CD. The first is the overall length: the playing time of this version is 1:50 as opposed to 2.40 for Paul McCreesh’s OVPP performance of the whole work. The second is how very few full arias Mendelssohn retained: in his early1828/9 version he cut 10 arias, 4 recitatives and 5 chorales (though by 1841 – this version – he had restored 4 arias though frequently with shortened da capos) since he was keen to enhance the drama of what he believed to be the essential Passion story. Third, the Evangelist’s part is accompanied by two ‘cellos double stopping and a bass, replacing the fortepiano that Mendelssohn had played himself in 1829. For this he had used an unfigured bass part, so there are some rather tame harmonies; and some of the vocal part is smoothed out and cut too.

For 1841, Mendelssohn added a substantial organ part – a precursor of the exiting organ part played by Dr Peasgood in the Bach Choir performances in the Albert Hall I was taken to in the early 1950s. Most of the choruses are taken at a brisk pace, as Mendelssohn had suggested in his metronome markings. Where did the funereal 12 beats in a bar in the opening chorus of the Reginald Jacques’ Bach Choir performances that I remember come from?

Other things you would expect: clarinets or basset horns for oboes da caccia – effective with flutes for recorders in O Schmerz, for example – as used by Vaughan Williams in his Leith Hill festival performances in the mid 50s, and German-sounding broad-toned oboes rather than the thin French sound favoured by many modern orchestras. Having just returned from an illuminating day singing Brahms and Mozart with the OAE, I caught myself wishing that de Vriend had used 1840s period instruments for a performance that probably has its chief interest for readers of the EMR in recapturing Mendelssohn’s sound-world.

So this is not really an 1841 performance in the expected sense of the word, but a good and clear account of the 1841 Mendelssohn version on modern instruments, played with a good deal of awareness of historical performance style.

David Stancliffe