BACH, Johann Sebastian: Passio Domini Nostri J.C. Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum (St. Matthew Passion), BWV 244 (1727/rev. 1736)
It was 1970, Wealthy Connecticut, and August when a friend knocked on the front door of semi-famous folk singer Bill Crofut, who kindly invited us into his home. I immediately recognized the glorious music coming from a pair of perfectly placed KLH Six speakers as being this piece. The analog information etched into the grooves of a pristine 33-1/3 RPM Long Playing recording made in Germany (the Archiv label, a division of Deutsche Grammophon Records) traveled from vinyl to diamond to pre-amp to amp and finally to the KLH pair, and it felt as if we were completely surrounded by the musicians and singers! Crofut then explained how he had actually sung in the Münchener Bach-Chor in 1958 on this very recording (#4 below).
Fast forward thirty years or so and I’m carefully setting my precious 336-page Eulenberg score down on the table, making sure it doesn’t get stained with my tears, which flow copiously. I had just finished score-studying another recording of this great, three-hour masterpiece (#5 below), and the tears were flowing. I definitely had an ecstatic musical epiphany on that day, and have had a -- forgive me -- passionate love-affair with this composition ever since!
Bach’s fantastic religious fervor is evident in every note of his massive output -- and never better displayed than here; evidence the care and love with which he brought this great masterpiece to life -- nearly 300 years ago. Incredibly (to us), the Matthew Passion was never heard again outside of Leipzig until Felix Mendelssohn organized a performance of a shortened version in 1829 -- two years after Beethoven had died!
Some excellent links about the Passion -- the musical setting of the various Gospel texts which tell the crucifixion story:
AN IMPORTANT POINT:
“ … [A]fter so many decades of research, certain fundamental questions about the music, and the way its composer wanted it to sound, remain tantalizingly obscure. Even now they can fuel passionate factional debate.” -- Timothy Roberts, “A Passion to Arouse Passions,” from booklet to #3, below.
So, armed with five excellent recordings of this long, intense masterpiece -- four of them on the Archiv label! -- I dive in. In my opinion, you cannot go wrong with any of these five masterful interpretations. With one exception, the differences between them are slight, and therefore best dealt with on an individual basis. The one recording which dares to take Rifkin’s theory literally (a fairly brave move) is McCreesh (#3), who uses only one singer per part in the two choruses (for a total of eighth singers). This works quite well on the recording -- I wonder how it would sound in a live setting, perhaps inside a large church?
I tend to believe that there is some truth to the notion that powerful early memories -- particularly musical memories -- tend to imprint themselves on one’s psyche in a big way! Thus, my first real study of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (see Wednesday’s post) involved a recording which to this day remains unsurpassed in my mind. How subjective this all is!
In any case, from the first paragraph, you might have guessed that #4 is still my overall favorite. But they are all very very good recordings!
Although McCreesh fits his performance on two discs, Gardiner beats him by a healthy four minutes, with Harnoncourt right behind them. Both Richter versions are much longer, due to his slower tempi (which I personally prefer) -- although the other three conductors all make convincing cases for their ideas!
- GARDINER, John Eliot; The Monteverdi Choir; The London Oratory Junior Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; Archiv 427 648-2 (3 CDs) (2:37:24)
- HARNONCOURT, Nikolaus; Regensburger Domchor; King’s College Choir Cambridge; Concentus musicus Wien; BACH 2000 (The Complete Works of J.S. Bach), Teldec 3984-25711-2 (153 CDs) (2:54:28)
- McCREESH, Paul; The Gabrielli Players; Archiv 474 200-2 (2 CDs) (2:41:32)
- RICHTER, Karl; Münchener Bach-Chor; Münchener Bach-Orchester; Archiv 463 700 (1958) (3 CDs) (3:17:47)
- RICHTER, Karl; Münchener Bach-Chor; Münchener Bach-Orchester; Archiv 413 613 (1979) (3 CDs) (3:19:12)
I. Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come ye daughters, share my mourning) (Chorus I, II)
This grave, lugubrious E Minor opening sets the tone for the entire Passion. The delicious dissonances create tension -- but yet the 12/8 pulse feels pastoral, no matter what the tempo!
- Gardiner (6:59). Moves along nicely, but I find no loss of the gravitas or intensity which Richter (#4 and #5) brings to it in a much slower tempo. The antiphonal effects (Bach is using a double choir and orchestra) are beautiful. The choruses blend beautifully, with every word perfectly enunciated …
- Harnoncourt (7:25). Slightly slower, but has none of the intensity and heaviness of the two Richter recordings! Of course, the overall interpretation is wonderful -- Harnoncourt uses all original instruments. He also does a good job of emphasizing the antiphony and Teldec did an even better job at engineering the stereo effect.
- McCreesh (6:06). Of the five, this is the most difficult one for me to appreciate. Simply by looking at the above timing, one can ascertain that this is nearly ridiculously fast! But is it ridiculous? Rather than the plodding feeling I get from Harnoncourt, I feel moved and refreshed after listening to this. The choirs are sung by eight voices only! The effect is startling to the ears, used to hearing massed choruses -- but it definitely grows on you!
- Richter '58 (9:52). Very slow, intense and rich in detail. When the chorus enters, a chill runs down my spine. Definitely my favorite.
- Richter ‘79 (11:26). The slowest of the five deserves the highest praise for that Richter intensity and attention to detail. I like the way the boys chorus (singing the cantus firmus) soars high above the choirs and orchestras. Archiv’s engineers brought out detail -- the flutes and oboes, doubling strings, which are often lost in the mix -- here they are perfectly balanced and audible. The separation between choruses is also well-defined.
II. Da Jesus diese Rede vollendet hatte (When Jesus had finished all these sayings) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
The crucial roles of Evangelist and Jesus are in good hands with these ten magnificent male voices! Except for his final words, in Aramaic -- Eli, eli, lama sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”) -- Jesus’ words are always accompanied by strings, a sort of musical halo -- beautifully rendered and recorded. The role of the Evangelist requires a tenor with a magnificent voice with a pure tone and a minimum vibrato. Jesus, on the other hand, requires some emotional investment (although I dislike Romantic-style rubatos, such as I hear from the good Andreas Schmidt (#1) from time to time!) -- but must also blend with the always accompanying strings. Haefliger (#4) is the best Evangelist, with a pure vocal tone which captures the most delicate nuances. When he sings ppp, I get chills … Fischer-Dieskau’s Jesus (#5) melts your soul with that heavenly voice of his -- Bach must have dreamt of him ...
- Gardiner (0:36). Evangelist: Anthony Rolfe Johnson; Jesus: Andreas Schmidt
- Harnoncourt (0:48). Evangelist: Kurt Equiluz; Jesus: Karl Ridderbush
- McCreesh (0:41). Evangelist: Mark Padmore; Jesus: Peter Harvey
- Richter '58 (1:03). Evangelist: Ernst Haefliger; Jesus: Kieth Engen
- Richter ‘79 (1:06). Evangelist: Peter Schreier; Jesus: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
III. Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen (O blessed Jesu, how hast Thou offended) (Chorale Melody #1A)
The chorale melodies are repeated in different keys. This first chorale is in B Minor. Listen for the delicate interplay in the last few bars in the alto and tenor voices! (esp. in #4)
The same melody will be used in #XXV and #LV.
My Eulenberg score has fermatas at each cadence. Who observes them and who doesn’t?
- Gardiner -- no.
- Harnoncourt -- yes.
- McCreesh -- more of a comma than a real fermata. Plenty of uncalled for rubato in the body of the chorale ...
- Richter '58 -- yes, more often than not.
- Richter ‘79 -- yes, big-time!
IV. Da versammleten sich die Hohenpriester (Then assembled together the chief priest) (Recitative: Evangelist)
Notice how well Bach creates a dramatic effect:
“Then assembled together the chief priest, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtlety, and kill Him. But they said …”
V. Ja nicht auf das Fest (Not upon the feast) (Chorus I, II)
The chorus responds with an immediate intensity:
“Not upon the feast, lest haply there be an uproar among the people.”
VI. Da nun Jesus war zu Bethanien (Now when Jesus was in Bethany) (Recitative: Evangelist)
And again here, as the Evangelist speaks of “ … a woman, having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on His head, as He sat at meat. But when His disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying,”
And then the full chorus and orchestra responds:
VII. Wozu dienet dieser Unrat? (To what purpose is that waste?) (Chorus I)
“To what purpose is that waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.”
VIII. Da das Jesus merkete, sprach er zu ihnen (When Jesus understood it, He said unto them) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
Jesus‘ response is beautiful. A nice scene, don’t you think?
IX. Du lieber Heiland du (My Master and my Lord) (Recitative: Alto)
The solo arias are almost preceded by a recitative for the same voice. The accompaniment is usually the same as well. Thus, our first paired recitative-aria is for Alto, accompanied by two flutes, which play a constant stream of sixteenth notes, finally cadencing on F# Minor -- the key of the …
X. Buß’ und Reu’ (Grief for Sin)
The first Aria -- one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching melodies which ever flowed from Bach’s pen! This is an incredibly difficult aria for altos, who must negotiate Bach’s wide melodic intervallic leaps, whilst maintaining the necessary intensity and control. In the “B” section, in a somewhat rare instance of tone painting, Bach features beautiful staccato “droplets” from the flutes as the singer mentions “weeping.”
- Gardiner (4:14). Anne Sofie von Otter -- like most of the soloists in these five recordings -- is magnificent beyond all belief! You have to hear her to believe it. She has a velvet sound and manages perfect control over the difficult leaps. This moving, sweeping tempo is faster than Richter, of course, but seems to work well (as do all the fast tempi by both Gardiner and McCreesh!). The “weeping droplets” are best here.
- Harnoncourt (5:18). Paul Esswood -- another fascinating historic question -- did Bach use male voices for all the vocals parts, including Alto? Most experts today think so ... everything about this performance feels completely authentic. Esswood is dramatic, but never over-the-top ...
- McCreesh (4:15). Magdalena Kozená -- fast, interesting that McCreesh uses a female voice for all alto parts, whereas Harnoncourt and Gardiner (though not here) use male voices ...
- Richter '58 (5:31). Hertha Töpper -- I distinctly remember listening to this aria at Crofut's house that magical August night thinking how this music felt so immediate and powerful, so -- divine! I'm not sure the "weeping droplets" sound as convincing at this slow tempo. It's always a trade-off.
- Richter '79 (4:52). Janet Baker -- The slightly faster tempo (versus ‘58 version) makes all the difference! Baker is less operatic than Töpper.
XI. Da ging hin der Zwölfen einer (Then one of the twelve) (Recitative: Evangelist, Judas)
Judas asks the high priests what he might expect as a reward for turning Jesus in ...
XII. Blute nur, du liebes Herz (Break and die, thou dearest heart) (Aria: Soprano)
… which leads directly to another heart-breakingly beautiful aria, for soprano.
- Gardiner (4:43). Ann Monoyios -- Wonderful voice, but the violas fade away on their quarter-notes (see below).
- Harnoncourt (4:54). (Boy) Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben -- a crystalline, pure voice. Occasionally, I question his phrasing and breath control decisions, but he does have a gorgeous voice! The violas fade away, but not as much as in #1.
- McCreesh (5:03). Julia Gooding -- I love her delivery and overall performance. The violas are cut shorter than in any of the other versions.
- Richter '58 (5:25). Irmgard Seefried -- At this time, please refer to my earlier comment about how " ... I tend to believe that there is some truth to the notion that powerful early memories -- particularly musical memories -- tend to imprint themselves on one's psyche in a big way!" The way the violas hold the quarter notes with the same intensity throughout, and basically anchor the beat, the way a jazz bass player might do -- that's the way I heard it in my head then -- and the way I hear it today. Letting the notes power through really fills out the overall sound, I think. In any case, I certainly prefer it.
- Richter '79 (5:50). Edith Mathis -- Even more intense than '58. Mathis is great -- the violas hold those quarter-notes all the way -- and this is my favorite of the five ...
XIII. Aber am ersten Tage (Now, the first day of the feast) (Recitative: Evangelist)
XIV. Wo willst du, daß wir dir bereiten (Where wilt Thou that we prepare for Thee) (Chorus I)
XV. Er sprach: Gehet hin in die Stadt (And He said, go into the city) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus) / Herr, bin ich’s? (Lord, is it I?) (Chorus I)
Where should we hold the Seder this year? Also notice how the Herr, bin ich’s transforms into Ich bin’s at the start of the chorale!
XVI. Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen (‘Tis I whose sin now binds Thee) (Chorale Melody #2A)
In Ab Major. Listen for the close intervals (minor seconds) and little chromatic movements in the different voices. The same melody will be used in #XLIV.
XVII. Er antwortete und sprach (And He answered and said) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus, Judas)
This long recitative is important because of the dialogue between Jesus and Judas. After Judas says, Bin ich’s, Rabbi? Jesus replies, Du sagest’s. Jesus’ words -- accompanied by strings, as usual -- are delicately doubled in slowly-rolling eighth-notes. The long passage concludes quoting directly from Matthew 26:23-29.
XVIII. Wiewohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt (Although our eyes with tears o’erflow) (Recitative: Soprano)
XIX. Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (Jesus, Saviour. I am thine) (Aria: Soprano)
- Gardiner (2:56). Barbara Bonney. Fastest of the five, but quite good.
- Harnoncourt (3:48). (Boy) Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben. A bit pedestrian, but the recording captures the oboes and continuo in perfect balance.
- McCreesh (3:11) Deborah York. This flies by, but has an undeniable energy that makes questioning the tempo seem irrelevant.
- Richter '58 (3:57). Irmagard Seefried. The tempo is perfect, and Seefried/Richter do one thing that none of the other three conductors accomplish -- i.e., making the constant repeitition of senke dich ("Offer Thee") sound natural and interesting.
- Richter '79 (4:04). Edith Mathis. Ditto plus. I only wish Mathis would have toned down the drama just a tad.
XX. Und da sie den Lobgesang gesporchen hatten (And when they had sung an hymn) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
Jesus sings of smiting the shepherd and scattering the flock (Matthew 26:30-32). In another example of tone-painting, note the “scattering” staccato 16ths in the accompanying strings as Jesus sings die Schafe der Herde werden sich zerstreuen (“the sheep of the flock shall be scattered”).
XXI. Erkenne mich, mein Hüter (Receive me, my Redeemer) (Chorale Melody #3A)
This melody is used in five chorales throughout the Passion -- this one, in E Major -- and #XXIII, LIII, LXIII, and LXXII.
XXII. Petrus aber antwortete und sprach (Peter answered, and said unto Him) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus, Peter)
XXIII. Ich will hier bei dir stehen (Here would I stand beside Thee) (Chorale Melody #3B)
Note-for-note, an exact replica of #XXI, transposed a semitone lower (Eb Major).
XXIV. Da kam Jesus mit ihnen zu einem Hofe (Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
XXV. O Schmerz! Hier zittert das gequälte Herz! (O grief! How throbs His heavy-laden breast!) (Recitative: Tenor) / Was ist die Ursach’ aller solcher Plagen (My Saviour, why must all this ill befall Thee?) (Chorale Melody #1B)
XXVI. Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen (I would beside my Lord be watching) (Aria: Tenor; Chorus I, II)
The first recitative-aria combo for tenor is quite interesting. Over a rumbling pianissimo pedal tone, the tenor sings in anguish, O Schmerz! (“O Grief!”), accompanied only by flutes and oboes (in addition to the continuo part). After his first verse, he is interrupted by the chorus, as they interject the first Chorale Melody in a mysterious C Minor. Another verse, another choral interruption (Ab Major). Tenor and chorus actually “trade” off -- not unlike jazz musicians “trading fours“ -- as the tenor sings a verse and the chorus does the same, until the last four lines for the tenor end the recitative.
The Aria -- (C Minor, 4/4) is another unforgettable melody. The tenor is delightfully accompanied by a single oboe, but, like the preceding Recitative, the chorus interjects a flowing phrase of several bars six separate times. This gives the aria a very conversational back-and-forth feel … when the chorus enters, I expect a sense of mystery, awe and wonder …
- Gardiner (4:57). Howard Crook. Powerful, sometimes a bit too dramatic. But I adore his vibrato, which is never too much or too heavy, and his pitch centers are always perfect.
- Harnoncourt (5:18). Kurt Equiluz. Again, A+ for the recording (mix, balance, etc.) -- but I don't get the mysterious awesome feeling I have come to expect from the choral entries.
- McCreesh (5:06). Mark Padmore. Excellent and the chorus provides maw (mystery, awe and wonder) -- particuarly interesting with only one voice per part!
- Richter '58 (5:23). Ernst Haefliger. The slowest of the five feels perfect to my ears (early memories?) -- and furthermore, the choral entries never fail to send chills up and down my spine!
- Richter '79 (5:03). Peter Schreier. This is possibly even a shade more thrilling than the '58 version! Schreier is gorgeous and the choral entries are beautifully hushed and mysterious.
All five tenors are magnificent. The tempi are nearly identical in all versions.
XXVII. Und ging hin ein wenig (And He went a little farther) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
XXVIII. Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder (The Saviour falleth low before His father) (Recitative: Bass)
XXIX. Gerne will ich mich bequemen (Gladly will I, fear disdaining) (Aria: Bass)
The theme here seems to be the “cup” (XXVII: “ … let this cup pass from me”; XXVIII: “ … He is prepared the cup of deathly bitterness to swallow …”; and XXIX: “ … Gladly will I, fear disdaining / drink the cup without complaining …”).
The first bass recitative-aria pair is one of the best! The recitative is brief. The Aria (G Minor, 3/8) is one of Bach’s most endearing. Although all five singers approach it differently, their interpretations invest all the reverence and joy that Bach intended.
- Gardiner (4:02). Olaf Bär. What's the hurry, Herr Gardiner? This is one case where I feel the tempo is just a little bit too rushed -- period! Bär is magnificent, but I miss the lingering over details that the other four provide -- also, on a few occasions, his lower register seems to betray him.
- Harnoncourt (5:11). Max van Egmond. Very slow. Images of molasses and cement come to mind. Otherwise, it's fine ...
- McCreesh (4:56). Stephan Loges. Slow, but not quite as lead-footed as #2. It doesn't feel like it has the right energy.
- Richter '58 (4:44). Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Stately. Fischer-Dieskau simply has no equal (in my opinion). This aria is perfect in every way. Just go ahead and click on the link to this and GET THIS BOX-SET, because this four minutes and forty-four seconds alone is worth any price to experience such pure, unadulterated joy! Okay, back to planet Earth ...
- Richter '79 (4:41). Matti Salminen. Salminen has a deep, rich voice -- but he is no Fischer-Dieskau. The orchestra sounds wonderful.
What a treat to get to the great Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus in the ‘79 recording, but then to go back to the ‘58 recording and hear him sing the bass arias. Naturally, his is the best of the bunch here …
XXX. Und er kam zu seinen Jüngern (And He cometh unto the disciples) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
XXXI. Was mein Gott will (O Father, let They will be done) (Chorale Melody #4A)
XXXII. Und er kam und fand sie aber schlafend (And he came and found them asleep again) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus, Judas)
XXXIII. So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (Behold, my Saviour now is taken) (Soprano, Alto, Chorus I, II)
This gorgeous duet (E Minor, 4/4) begins with flutes, oboes and strings in a slow, gently walking tempo (Harnoncourt wins the race this time around!), with much delightful interplay between the instrumental voices. Note that there is no continuo accompaniment! The two female voices enter, imitating the preceding stretto with the line So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (“Behold, my Saviour now is taken”), quickly interrupted by the chorus: Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (“Loose Him! Leave Him! Bind Him not!) … and then, using more tone-painting (thunder) to express the emotions of the disciples after Jesus has been arrested: Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden? (“Have lightnings, has thunder vanished in the clouds?”)
- Barbara Bonney, Michael Chance (4:21). Chance, the countertenor, blends beautifully with the female soprano.
- (Boy) Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Paul Esswood (3:53). The boy sounds unsure at times, and does not blend well with Esswood, but the choir is powerful and everything is -- as usual -- splendidly recorded. The fastest of the five versions.
- Deborah York, Magdalena Kozená (5:08). Now this really works for me. The instruments blend so beautifully and when Ms. York comes in, followed immediately by Ms. Kozená, things become very peaceful indeed. The chorus interrupts -- and it is jarring to hear individual voices, but I could get used to it -- and each time is more dramatic than the last!
- Irmgard Seefried, Hertha Töpper (5:00). There is close-miking going on here and you can hear each instrument with such clarity, it’s simply astonishing to realize that this recording was made 52 years ago! This is one instance, however, where I believe that the two soloists are too “dramatic” and there is some loss of balance.
- Edith Mathis, Janet Baker (5:09). Perfect tempo. If you are able to do so -- compare this style of singing with that in #3! I personally think McCreesh has the better idea. Nevertheless, the powerful choral outbursts here are so effective!
XXXIV. Und siehe, einer aus denen, die mit Jesu waren (And behold, one of them that were with Jesus (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus)
XXXV. O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß (O man, thy heavy sin lament) (Chorale Melody #5A)
The end of PART I is comprised of recitatives, choruses, chorales and an exquisite Soprano-Alto duet (#XXXIII). The stately music of #XXXV is Bach at his best. The interplay between orchestra (sweeping, rising, continuous sixteenth-notes in flutes, oboes, violins) and chorus (including the soprani, singing the cantus firmus) brings the action to a close in the tonic major (E) …
XXXVI. Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin! (Alas! Now is my Saviour gone!) (Aria: Alto, Chorus I, II)
B Minor, 3/8. This unusual aria (no preceding recitative -- not even “Evangelist exposition” ! ) which opens Part II is notable for the “trade-offs” between Alto and chorus. The overall tone is somewhat dark, but there is also a certain clarity here which all five Altos and conductors bring out in one way or another …
- Gardiner (3:30). Anne Sofie von Otter -- a few spots of unnecessary rubato …
- Harnoncourt (4:21). Paul Esswood -- very intense performance, details sparkle …
- McCreesh (3:46). Magdalena Kozená -- the stripped-down chorus sounds incredible here!
- Richter '58 (4:00). Hertha Töpper -- I suppose I did not recall that she had such a wide vibrato, which seems to compare unfavorably with some of the others altos, particularly the males!
- Richter ‘79 (4:39). Janet Baker -- After checking out four faster versions, I believe it is time to admit that Richter might be taking things a little too slow, at times ... (although I still prefer both this and #4 overall).
XXXVII. Die aber Jesum gegriffen hatten (And they that had laid hold of Jesus) (Recitative: Evangelist)
XXXVIII. Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht’t (For me the untrue world hath set) (Chorale Melody #6A)
XXXIX. Und wiewohl viel falsche Zeugen (Yea, though many false witnesses came) (Recitative: Evangelist, High Priest, Witnesses I, II)
XL. Mein Jesus schweigt (To witness false, my Saviour answereth not) (Recitative: Tenor)
XLI. Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen (Rejoice! Rejoice! If ye be reproached) (Aria: Tenor)
The accompaniment to the Tenor recitative-aria is a Viola da Gamba.
- Gardiner (3:34). Howard Crook -- very animated.
- Harnoncourt (3:31). Tom Sutcliffe -- beautiful performance.
- McCreesh (3:41). James Gilchrist -- from the booklet: "... [t]he viola da gamba part to the recitative and aria ... probably dates from a later performance when a second organ was not available, and is therefore not included." So the regular cello from the continuo plays the line -- ultimately, really not that much difference in sound!
- Richter '58 (3:46). Ernst Haefliger. I like that you can hear the organ in the continuo quite clearly. Haefliger has one of the most beautiful tenor voices I've ever heard. I think -- like most of the '58 soloists -- he uses too much vibrato during the arias (he nearly completely dispenses with it in his role as Evangelist).
- Richter '79 (3:39). Peter Schreier. Richter’s harpsichord stylings are right up front here -- not that they’re not appropriate, but it makes this aria feel a bit heavier than some of the other versions. Schreier certainly uses less vibrato than Haefliger in this particular aria.
XLII. Und der Hohepriester antwortete (And the high priest answered) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus, High Priest) / Er ist des Todes schuldig (He is worthy of death) (Chorus I, II)
XLIII. Da speieten sie aus in sein Angesicht (Then did they spit in His face) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Weissage uns, Christe (Now tell us, Thou Christ) (Chorus I, II)
XLIV. Wer hat dich so geschlagen (O Lord, who dares to smite Thee) (Chorale Melody #2B)
XLV. Petrus aber saß draußen im Palast (Now Peter sat without in the palace) (Recitative: Evangelist, Peter, Maids I, II) / Wahrlich, du bist auch einer von denen (Surely thou also art one of them) (Chorus II)
XLVI. Da hub er an, sich zu verfluchen (Then began he to curse and to swear) (Recitative: Evangelist, Peter)
The very end of this recitative is amazing. Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich (“And he went out and wept bitterly“) [Matthew 26:75]. The tenor goes up to a high B, and to paint the words properly, requires great dynamic control.
- Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Goosebumps.
- Kurt Equiluz. Very nice, but too loud.
- Mark Padmore. A bit over-the-top, but pretty great!
- Ernst Haefliger. I don't believe it can be done better!
- Peter Schreier. But I might have to call this a tie! (w/#4)
Both #4 and #5 are spine-tingling.
XLVII. Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, Lord, on me) (Aria: Alto)
12/8, B Minor. A fantastic solo violin accompaniment.
- Michael Chance (6:43). Dark. The male voice is perfect for this aria.
- Paul Esswood (6:14). Perhaps a tad too fast for my personal perference, this version is nevertheless packed with unforgettable attention to detail and of course, that beautiful Esswood voice.
- Magdalena Kozená (6:13). Same timing as #2, but it feels much more relaxed, somehow. Her tone is piercingly pure. The blend with the violin is magnificent. It feels like a wonderful dance! I wonder why McCreesh doesn't use a male voice here. The scholarship is all over the place.
- Hertha Töpper (7:46). No bombastic singing here; Töpper -- not afraid to "let it go" -- also does a superb job of blending with the violin. Although I believe I prefer Töpper to Kozená as a singer, I think that #3 absolutely nails the feel of this -- albeit, at a strange, fast tempo!
- Janet Baker (7:27). My preference for slower tempi sometimes reverses itself in situations like this. Compared to #3, this really feels held back. The violin and voice mix is incomparable, however. There is a sweetness here which is quite magical.
XLVIII. Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen (Tho’ from Thee temptation lured me) (Chorale Melody #7A)
XLIX. Des Morgens aber hielten alle Hohenpriester (When the morning was come, all the chief priests) (Recitative: Evangelist, Judas) / Was gehet uns das an? (But what is that to us?) (Chorus I, II)
L. Und er warf die Silberlinge (And he cast down the pieces of silver) (Recitative: Evangelist, High Priests I, II)
LI. Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder (Give, O give me back my Lord) (Aria: Bass)
Judas has “cast down the pieces of silver” and hung himself. The singers sings
Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!
Seht, das Geld, den Mörderlohn,
Wirft euch der verlorne Sohn
Zu den Füßen nieder!
Give, O give me back my Lord,
See the silver, price of blood,
At your feet in horror pour’d
By the lost betrayer.
Despite the gruesome subject matter, this aria features the most wonderful obbligato violin accompaniment -- it literally sweeps along the rest of the music with flurries of 32nd notes.
- Cornelius Hauptmann (2:53). Quite good.
- Max van Egmond (3:03). Perfect balance, amazing attention to detail.
- Stephan Loges (2:46). Not crazy about his tone or timbre here. The violin's 32nds are lost at this speed-freak tempo.
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (3:12). The violin is mixed closer to the front than in other versions. DFD is the king. He helps to create that masterful illusion where it seems that this music is jumping out of the speakers -- KLH or otherwise -- and grabbing you by ... by whatever ... but you will be grabbed! His voice could melt an iceberg.
- Matti Salminen (3:30). Can't compete with DFD, but he is amazing!
LII. Sie hielten aber einen Rat (And they took counsel together) (Recitative: Evangelist, Jesus, Pilate)
LIII. Befiehl du deine Wege (Commit thy way to Jesus) (Chorale Melody #3C)
LIV. Auf das Fest aber hatte der Landpfleger (Now at that feast the governor) (Recitative: Evangelist, Pilate, Pilate‘s Wife) / Barabbam! (Barabbas!) (Chorus I, II) [one very loud D# Diminished chord!] / Pilatus sprach zu ihnen (Pilate said unto them) (Recitative: Evangelist, Pilate) / Laß ihn kreuzigen! (Let Him be crucified!) (Chorus I, II)
LV. Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe! (O wond’rous love, that suffers this correction! (Chorale Melody #1C)
LVI. Der Landpleger sagte (And the governor said) (Recitative: Evangelist, Pilate)
LVII. Er hat uns allen wohlgetan (To us He hath done all things well) (Recitative: Soprano)
LVIII. Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (For love my Saviour now is dying) (Aria: Soprano)
- Ann Monoyios (5:19). For once, Gardiner takes his time! It pays. Monoyios is achingly precise and pure. The flutes and oboes make for an authentic Baroque sound, which adds to the feeling of "dying for love."
- (Boy) Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben (4:33). The boy's pureness of tone is a marvel to behold. Unfortunately, by the time he matures as a musician, he will no longer be "eligible" to sing this material!
- Deborah York (4:58). Second slowest (for once!) and worthwhile. York is right there, quite exacting with all the weird chromatic shifts. The flute is gorgeous.
- Irmgard Seefried (4:33). Beautifully recorded and mixed -- every nuance is there to enjoy! Tempo works.
- Edith Mathis (5:24). But this one wins! Mathis is perfect here, and the flute is so beautiful. A perfect example of an aria which requires this more thoughtful pace. In my (humble) opinion.
LIX. Sie schrieen aber noch mehr (But they cried out the more) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Laß ihn kreuzigen! (Let Him be crucified!) (Chorus I, II) / Da aber Pilatus sahe (When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing) (Recitative: Evangelist, Pilate) / Sein Blut kommer über uns (His blood be on us and on our children) (Chorus I, II) / Da gab er ihnen Barbbam los (Then released he Barabbas unto them) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LX. Erbarm es Gott! Hier steht der Heiland (O gracious God!) (Recitative: Alto)
LXI. Können Tränen meiner Wangen (Be my weeping and my wailing unavailing) (Aria: Alto)
- Anne Sofie von Otter (6:49). Beautiful; perfect coordination.
- Tom Sutcliffe (7:30). A bit rough in places.
- Susan Bickley (6:51). A general complaint about McCreesh: the soloists tends to get super "operatic" (for lack of a better term). I believe -- in general -- that a simple, pure tone is usually called for here.
- Hertha Töpper (8:04). Plodding? Not really -- I find it rich -- and filled with drama! Exquisite.
- Janet Baker (8:01). While for some reason -- although nearly identical in tempo -- I feel like everyone is running through thick mud here.
LXII. Da nahmen die Kriegsknechte (Then the soldiers of the governer) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Gegrüßet seist du, Judenkönig! (Hail, Hail, King of the Jews!) (Chorus I, II) / Und speieten ihn an (And they spit upon Him) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LXIII. O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head sore wounded) (Chorale Melody #3D)
LXIV. Und da sie ihn verspottet hatten (And after that they had mocked Him) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LXV. Ja! Freilich will in uns das Fleisch (The flesh must even be crucified) (Recitative: Bass)
LXVI. Komm, süßes Kreuz (Come blessed cross) (Aria: Bass)
- Olaf Bär (6:07). Similar to #LI in the manner in which the viola da gamba glides over the vocal part in faster, jagged, dotted rhythms. The gamba is beautifully recorded here and every note is audible; Bär is wonderful. One of the best moments of this version.
- Karl Ridderbusch (6:04). It seems Maestro Harnoncourt plays the gamba part here himself -- and quite well, of course! Great recording!
- Peter Harvey (6:49). Again, a surprisingly slow timing, and quite welcome. The gamba is gorgeous and Harvey is fine -- I could dream for a slightly better mix bringing gamba and voice more in sync. The performance is fantastic.
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (6:27). Again, the oldest recording, but the gamba never sounded better or clearer (with the exception of #5, perhaps). Combine that and DFD and you have a winner!
- Marti Salminen (7:04). This is the tempo that I feel is most appropriate. The gamba is up close and intimate. Salminen is fine here and everyone is operating on the same high plane -- the slower tempo allows every detail to shine. Really excellent.
LXVII. Und da sie an die Stätte kamen (When they were come unto a place) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Der du den Tempel Gottes zerbrichst (Thou that destroyest the temple of God) (Chorus I, II) / Desgleichen auch die Hohenpriester spotteten sein (Likewise also the chief priests mocked Him) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Andern hat er geholfen (He saved others, Himself He cannot save) (Chorus I, II)
LXVIII. Desgleichen schmäheten ihn (The thieves also which were crucified) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LXIX. Ach Golgatha, unsel’ges Golgatha! (Ah Golgotha! Unhappy Golgotha!) (Recitative: Alto)
LXX. Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand (See ye, see the Saviour’s outstretched hands!) (Aria: Alto, Chorus I, II)
- Michael Chance (3:18). I like the way the oboes are recorded and mixed with the Alto -- and I definitely like the high male sound here. The antiphony with the interjecting chorus is very effective and moving.
- Paul Esswood (3:29). I imagine Harnoncourt knows something I -- and the other four conductors here -- do not about the ornamentation. Everyone else has the oboes actually trilling, but here they just play appoggiaturas. Everything else is fine.
- Magdalena Kozená (2:52). Whew! Back to the races again! And -- by the way -- even at this tempo, the oboists are trilling ... (how thrilling) ... actually, I've gotten quite used to this tempo, and the choral interjections are somehow more organic than the other four massed-choir versions. Something to think about for a few hundred years or so ...
- Hertha Töpper (8:04). If I could tone down her vibrato just a tad, I'd be so happy. The choral entries are perfect and everything sounds so magnificent -- except that Töpper sounds like she's singing an aria from a 19th century opera. Oh well.
- Janet Baker (4:04). Nice relaxed tempo. Baker is magnificent and the oboists are right with her at all times. With wonderful choral entries, I prefer this to #4, mainly because of Baker.
LXXI. Und von der sechsten Stunde an (Now from the sixth hour) (Recitative Evangelist, Jesus) / Der rufet dem Elias (He calleth for Elias) (Chorus I) / Und bald lief einer unter ihnen (And straightway one of them ran) (Recitative: Evangaelist) / Halt, laß sehen (Let be, let us see) (Chorus II) / Aber Jesus schriee abermal laut (Jesus, when He had cried again with a loud voice) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LXXII. Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (Be near me, Lord, when dying) (Chorale Melody #3E)
LXXIII. Und siehe da, der Vorhang (And behold, the veil of the temple) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen (Truly, this was the Son of God) (Chorus I, II) / Und es waren viel Weiber da (And many women were there) (Recitative: Evangelist)
LXXIV. Am Abend, da es kühle war (At evening, hour of calm and peace) (Recitative: Bass)
LXXV. Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (Make thee clean, my heart, from sin) (Aria: Bass)
This final aria is packed with references to earlier music. For example, the 12/8 meter recalls the opening movement, and the general feeling is one of both repressed agony as well as a kind of peaceful understanding and acceptance. Bach injects the Bb Major tonality with plenty of A’s -- the Major 7th of the key -- which makes for a very “happy” or “peaceful” feeling.
- Cornelius Hauptmann (5:57). Wonderful. Not Fischer-Dieskau, however!
- Karl Ridderbusch (6:56). Great. Warm and tender. Solid performance. Not Fischer-Dieskau, however!
- Peter Harvey (5:51). Fastest version. I just don't like the way that Harvey lands on a long, held note and gets all "operatic" on us, with ridiculous crescendi and decrescendi which seem, to me, completely out of place here. Definitely not Fischer-Dieskau!
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (7:09). Must be careful not to get tears on score. Something to listen for: oboe da caccia and violin cascading 16th notes decorating the vocal line ...
- Marti Salminen (7:23). Stately, wondrous, detailed, great dynamic contrast. Absolutely fantastic. The only problem: not Fischer-Dieskau.
LXXVI. Und Joseph nahm den Leib (And when Joseph had taken the body) (Recitative: Evangelist) / Herr, wir haben gedacht (Sir, we remember that that deceiver said) (Chorus I, II) / Pilatus sprach zu ihnen (Pilate said unto them) (Recitative: Evangelist, Pilate)
LXXVII. Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh’ gebracht (And now the Lord to rest is laid) (Recitative: Bass, Tenor, Alto, Soprano, Chorus I, II)
A chilling moment of unsurpassed genius. Each soloist takes a turn (the girls get more notes than the boys: the Bass has eight notes; the Tenor 12; the Alto 28; the Soprano 22) and is -- as previously -- “interrupted” by the chorus, which sings Mein Jesu, gute Nacht! (“Lord Jesus, fare Thee well!”)
I don’t know about you, but wishing Jesus “good night” here -- to my way of thinking -- requires a nice slow, easy approach -- like the way RICHTER does it, for example! Compare and contrast, if you will:
- Gardiner (1:37) I love the mix here and throughout this wonderful recording. You can hear everything clearly and distinctly. I just think he says "good night" too quickly ...
- Harnoncourt (1:45). Ditto.
- McCreesh (1:46). Ditto and way too ... yeah, you got it -- "operatic" ...
- Richter '58 (2:31). Magic.
- Richter '79 (2:56). This is the way to say "good night." I wish to combine this tempo and delicate nature with the vocal stylings of #1 or #2 -- i.e., less vibrato.
LXXVIII. Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee) (Chorus I, II)
C Minor, ¾. Almost an anticlimax after the intensity of the “goodnights“!