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Johann Sebastian Bach: Passionsmusik nach dem Evangelisten Matthäus, BWV 244
Mark Padmore (tenor, Evangelist), Peter Harvey (bass, Christ), Maria Espada (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (mezzo-soprano/alto), Renate Arends (soprano), Barbara Kozelj (mezzo-soprano/alto), Peter Gijsbertsen (tenor), Henk Neven (bass), Netherlands Radio Choir, National Children’s Choir, Gijs Leenaars (chorus master), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Iván Fischer (conductor)
Recorded live from The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (30 March-1 April, 2012) – 174’
Arthaus Musik 50 GB (dual layer) Blu-ray disc 108 075 (or DVD 101676) – Picture format: 1080i 16:9 – Sound format: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.0 – Region: Worldwide – Subtitles in German, English, French, and Spanish – Booklet with essays in English, French, and German

“You can’t do the St. Matthew in an un-religious way. The only approach is from a deep, universally religious feeling” says conductor Iván Fischer. Of all of Bach’s works, his St. Matthew Passion is possibly his most contemplatively literal. At just under three hours in length, the Passion is staid and impressively unrelenting in religious narrative. Yet that narrative, shaped by J.S. Bach’s unparalleled ability to portray the innig in scripture, can be so weightless as to flow over those three hours in a refreshing and irrepressible nature. Thanks to Fischer and the magnificent forces involved, this performance does just that.

Fischer’s style with this music and these performers is, in the best sense, simplistic. Sure it is “hip” in a sense, but he is unfussy to a fault with tempi. That is not to say that things are haphazard. Rather the music breathes under his helm in a most unforced way. Forms and phrasing are dictated by the rhythm, with Fischer bringing a completely clear, yet not overbearing, dance-like litheness to Bach’s arias. The small-ish choirs (each around 20), orchestra, and soloists respond with impeccable precision combined with dramatic thoughtfulness. Fischer’s transitions between arias, choruses, and recitatives are often startling, but dramatically appropriately so. The cohesion he thus creates is irresistible as the nearly 3 hours wafts by the listener.

It would be hard to claim, however, that Fischer is solely responsible for this effect. Oftentimes, tenor Mark Padmore as the Evangelist appears equal in musical stature and dramatic impetus. The British tenor is one of the most supremely skilled singing actors today. Although using a score, his head was virtually never cast downward while singing. His sweet, shimmering tenor was only outshone by his magnetic dramatic persuasiveness. His innumerable recits were sung with a fresh attention to text and flow, often piercing the listener with his clean diction, but letting the syntax dictate the line. His eyes were another matter. In this performance, Padmore’s eyes told perhaps more than his words did. In his eyes, his countenance, Padmore conveyed what he was telling in a universally understandable language. It was nothing short of a completely masterful performance.

The rest of the soloists were supremely adequate and virtually outstanding. Bass Peter Harvey sang Christ with a warm sound that was more baritone than bass. It is a fine voice, large enough for the part, but vulnerable in character. He was perhaps too emotive, for my taste, as the sacrificial lamb in the first part of the piece, but achieved sublimity in “Komm, süsses Kreuz,” helped by a spectacular viola de gamba obligato. Maria Espada sang beautifully. Her secure and sound was pristine and she navigated the coloratura with impeccable accuracy. Dramatically she was slightly wooden, but her contribution was quite satisfactory particularly in her assured “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” which was outstanding. Ingeborg Danz sang with a pleasing mezzo sound. It lacked some bottom weight, but the consistency and musicality were quite fine. Sung with a secure stage presence, her “Erbarme dich” was a musical highlight.

The second chorus soloists were quite satisfactory. Tenor Peter Gijsbertsen sang “Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” with brilliant phrasing. Henk Neven’s “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!” was authoritative and colorful. Soprano Renate Arends was angelic in both voice and presence, and Barbara Kozelj sang a graceful and noble “Können Tränen meiner Wangen.”

The Netherland Radio Choir was splendidly musical. Their diction was crisp, their phrasing refined and effortless. Most striking about this group was how uniform the color of sound was across the sections. Top to bottom, the group’s sound was amazingly consistent. On top of that, it was quite dynamic, injecting the double choruses with fury and vigor. As the angry crowd demanding Barrabas, they were formidable. The National Children’s Choir were well-prepared and sang with nice color, never approaching strident or breathy.

The reduced Concertgebouw Orchestra was magnificent. Playing on modern instruments, the strings generally played with straight-tone, but never made the character of sound harsh. They breathed with Fischer and played with each other in a fine sense of ensemble. Special mention goes to the flute and English horn duo who played with mesmerizing tone and made it look easy at the same time. The continuo was a joy to watch and were remarkably sensitive but confidant.

The Concertgebouw stage was set with each choir and orchestra on either side of the organ pipes, soloists either front and center or nestled throughout the players, depending on the length of their solo. Technically, this recording was a joy in surround sound. While not truly antiphonal, the engineers did an outstanding job in creating a wide and deep sound stage that was richly detailed. The double choruses were thrilling while the smaller ensembles were lovingly captured. It was a joy to hear so much character of the hall in the recording. Visually, the picture was finely detailed if not overwhelmingly rich. For the interior of a concert hall during performance, it was quite acceptible. The video directing was unfussy yet always involving.

In some ways, the final chorus, the famous “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen,” is an ideal encapsulation of the entire performance. Ethereal, but not rushed, Fischer leads a reading that is fervently committed, but not garish. The phrases ease into each other, effortlessly conveyed by the splendid musicians. At the conclusion, the last sound is firm, but not ponderous. The massive silence following the final chord is, however, interminable. In that silence is the “innig” that Fischer so brilliantly achieves in this St. Matthew Passion: a recording of exceptional ability and uncommon profundity.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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