Claims to create ‘a new and fresh perspective’ in the pre-release publicity for this St Matthew Passion are bold. We are led to expect ‘raging choirs, intimate chorales and emotionally charged arias’. If that’s not enough hype, we are encouraged to believe we will hear ‘something completely new and unheard-of’. Full marks for the upbeat promotional flimflam, but does this gaseous and feisty sales talk have any bearing on reality? Marketing spin might have been on surer ground if use was made of Sir Hubert Parry’s description of this Passion setting as ‘[t]he richest and noblest example of sacred music in existence’. Few can argue with that.
So, can the disc’s advertising blurb be taken seriously? Yes and no is the short answer. It’s certainly an achievement to record any work for soloists, double choir and two orchestras that complies with social distancing recommendations. Under baroque specialist Hans-Christoph Rademann, the combined choir and instrumentalists of the Stuttgart-based group Gaechinger Cantorey (originally founded by Helmut Rilling) and soloists produce a mixed result from a performance given at the Forum am Schlosspark, Ludwigsburg in November 2020. No doubt the exceptional circumstances influenced the decision to replace boys’ voices in Part One with three sopranos.
Throughout, Rademann maintains purposeful attention to the orchestral fabric, though accumulating dramatic tensions are served mostly by the soloists, of whom several offer memorable readings. Peter Harvey makes for an intelligently projected Christus, displaying a keen awareness of Jesus’s humanity. His is an oak-aged baritone of peerless musicianship and warmth, tailor-made for the expressive nuances required of this role – world-weary in his encounter with the woman with the alabaster box and authoritative after his arrest. Equally involving is the bright toned Evangelist Patrick Grahl who communicates the narrative with considerable fluency, movingly so for Peter’s final denial of Christ, with story-telling detail for the Crucifixion and no small degree of theatricality for the rending of the Temple curtain.
Another compelling performance comes from the young alto Marie Henriette Reinhold, a name new to me, but a singer clearly destined for an impressive career and already securing favourable press notices. Her ‘Erbarme dich’, the emotional heart of the Passion, conveys all the necessary remorse in a voice that consistently holds the ear with a natural sense of phrasing and a gentle blooming on extended notes. As yet, she lacks the variegated timbre of someone like Robin Blaze, but hers is an evenly blended voice and brightly focused in her aria, ‘Buß und Reu’, heard with a pair of obliging flutes. Elsewhere, two oboe da caccia and pizzicato cello support her grief-stricken ‘Ah Golgotha!’, and her duet (‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefrangen’) with Isabel Schicketanz is finely attuned to the soprano’s more delicate shading. Schicketanz has a promising voice and is at her best in the flowing ‘Ich will dir mein Herzen schenken’ (with perfectly balanced oboe d’amore and continuo) where her gossamer tone gently implores Jesus to reside in her soul.
Amongst other soloists, Icelandic tenor Bendikt Kristjánsson negotiates the operatic lines of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ with valour, but occasionally sounds effortful in his upper range. A more persuasive mode of expression is heard in the commentary on faith and suffering that is ‘Geduld, geduld!’. Croatian bass Krešimir Stražanac delivers a rewarding ‘Gibt mir meinen Jesus wieder’, a characterful and wonderfully forthright interpretation and enhanced by Nadja Zwiener’s dazzling violin. There’s dignity in ‘Mache dich, meine Herze, rein’, where a consoling Stražanac brings reassurance in a message of hope.
If the soloists bring a wide emotional range to this performance, the 26-strong chorus of Gaechinger Cantorey is rather less distinctive. Yet Bach’s chorus is crucial to augmenting the drama with its commentary on the narrative and the various crowd scenes. Missing from this performance is raw energy and vivid detail, with the chorales mostly given cursory treatment. The ‘turba’ chorus neither bays for blood nor mocks with sneering indifference (‘Lass ihn kreuzigen‘ needs to blaze like an acetylene torch), although an iridescent ‘Sind donner, sind Blitzen’ does convey a sense of sheet lightning. More persuasive are the expansive choruses which unfold with a fine architectural sweep.
Overall, this is a well-paced and crisply played performance, enjoying excellent blend and ensemble if not spiritual intensity. While not attempting anything revelatory or ‘unheard-of’, this disc provides a welcome platform from which one might wish to explore the Passion discography further.
Patrick Grahl (Evangelist), Peter Harvey (Christus), Isabel Schicketanz (soprano), Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto), Bendikt Kristjánsson (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac bass & Pilate), Gaechinger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann (director).
J.S. Bach: St Matthew Passion BWV244
Accentus Music ACC 30535 [2 hrs 36 mins]
ABOVE: Hans-Christoph Rademann