Notes and Editorial Reviews
Eloquent and thoughtful in matters of style and expressive content, with a textural clarity which few competitors can rival - all aspects of Bach’s miraculous score are taken into account.
Hardly is the ink – yes, some of us still use the stuff – dry from my review of a St Matthew Passion performed by the Netherlands Bach Society conducted by Jos van Veldhoven, than another Netherlands-based recording turns up, this one directed by Frans Bruggen. By the time readers see this review they will know that I enjoyed the rival performance, while stopping short of recommending it as an out-and-out winner. Bruggen’s version provides some interesting comparisons with the other, more of detail than of concept. Both are live
recordings from the same premises in Utrecht – Bruggen in 1996, van Veldhoven in 1997; both share a lively sense of drama and have broadly corresponding views about the pacing of it, and both field forces of similar though not identical strengths. Bruggen, for example, prefers a string body of 184.108.40.206.1 for each of the orchestras as against the 220.127.116.11.1 of the other. My own preference here is for Bruggen’s choice, which invariably offers sturdier support and a more apparent, effortlessly eloquent aural framework. Miraculously, only two or three musicians are common to both recordings. Where on earth would Dutch music-making be without omnipresent violinist Alda Stuurop, cellist Richte van der Meer, or bass Peter Kooy? Continuo player Margaret Urquhart, on the other hand, offers variety within ubiquity, being allotted a double-bass for van Veldhoven and a violone for Bruggen. Again, my preference is for Bruggen’s judgement in these matters and, by and large, his continuo groups are the more impressive. And Bruggen scores again over the other in the more sharply defined phrasing and articulation he requires from his players. Van Veldhoven has a more fluid concept of phrasing, and sometimes this is strikingly effective, but occasionally Bach’s melodic contours are allowed to drift, thus becoming flaccid and enervating.
Bruggen, so far, comes out on top but there are also some weaknesses which redress the balance. The most serious of them is the solo singing of his second soprano, Mona Julsrud. Her “Blute nur, du liebes Herz” is a sorry affair in which her technique and vocal range fall well short of what is required. Kristinn Sigmundsson, who sings the role of Christ, has a very fine, resonant voice and, though occasionally I found him unfocused, his performance is noble and at times awesome in the forthrightness of its declamation. There is the greatest difference imaginable between the vocal colours and inflexions of the two rival Evangelists. Both Gerd Turk (van Veldhoven) and Nico van der Meel are affecting story-tellers, but there the similarity ends, the latter having such a light, airy voice that he calls to mind a French haute-contre. Van der Meel’s performance is absolutely gripping – his tale is one of mystery, urgency and of commanding importance. We are inescapably drawn in to his narrative which he declaims with sensibility and a wide range of inflective nuance. His account of St Peter’s denial is realized with consummate artistry.
Where the other soloists are concerned it is as much a matter of personal taste as anything. Maria Cristina Kiehr turns in a fine performance for Bruggen – her “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” is meek, intimate and ethereal – but, even so, only just has the edge on van Veldhoven’s mainly excellent Johannette Zomer. Andreas Scholl (van Veldhoven) is matched, not by a countertenor, but by a contralto, Claudia Schubert, in the Bruggen recording. Her “Buss und Reu” and affectingly halting “Erbarme dich” are darkly expressive and sublimely lyrical, respectively. I liked her “Ach, nun ist mein Jesu hin” rather less, however, the piece furthermore providing a rare instance of indifferent choral singing. It is the price we must pay for a live recording and, though examples of poor ensemble are few enough, those that do creep in – No. 36 is another – are nevertheless unwelcome. Of the remaining soloists, Wilke te Brummelstroete is rewarding in her “Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen” (No. 61), Ian Bostridge and Toby Spence effective, Harry van der Kamp resonant but hollow-sounding, and seemingly less concerned with textual content than his confederates, and Peter Kooy, satisfying as ever – his “Mache dich”, in both recordings of the Passion, is sung with affection and understanding for both music and text, though the piece gets off to a shaky start and is, perhaps, slightly less lyrical than van Veldhoven.
In summary, this is a St Matthew Passion which should please many readers. Bruggen’s interpretation is eloquent, thoughtful in matters of style and expressive content, and it benefits from a textural clarity which few competitors can rival. All aspects of Bach’s miraculous score are taken into account. Whether or not, in the end, this is my first choice, I am at the moment uncertain, but it is without question a performance that I shall want to hear many times over. Strongly recommended.
-- Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone [7/1998]
Works on This Recording
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Ian Bostridge (Tenor),
Wilke te Brummelstroete (Contralto (Female alto)),
Mona Julsrud (Soprano),
Harry van der Kamp (Bass),
Maria Cristina Kiehr (Soprano),
Peter Kooy (Bass),
Nico Van der Meel (Tenor),
Claudia Schubert (Contralto (Female alto)),
Kristinn Sigmundsson (Bass),
Toby Spence (Tenor)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century,
Netherlands Chamber Choir,
St. Bavo Cathedral Boys Choir
Written: Circa 1727; Leipzig, Germany
Venue: Vredenburg, Utrecht
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