Notes and Editorial Reviews
St. John Passion
Fritz Lehmann, cond; Uta Graf (sop); Marga Höffgen (alt); Julius Patzak (ten); Gérard Souzay (bar); Walter Berry (bs); Vienna SO, Singakademie Ch
MUSIC & ARTS 1238, mono (2 CDs: 120:07)
This set, like the Paul Hindemith-led performance of Monteverdi’s
reviewed elsewhere in this issue, is taken from the original Vienna Symphony archive tapes and restored with the Algorithmix processor, but in this case
historically oriented listeners will have more to carp about and point out as “wrong.” For one thing, though Fritz Lehmann uses a reduced orchestra and chorus, they don’t play or sing without vibrato. For another, the only vocal soloists who sing with little or no vibrato are Uta Graf and Julius Patzak. Though Lehmann sculpts the orchestra and chorus, particularly in big ensembles, with a coruscating rhythmic feel, there is much more legato here than in modern performances of this work. Particularly in the contralto arias, the soloist sings with a somewhat heavy tone and feeling and rich vibrato, while Lehmann suspends forward momentum in his rhythm. In short, it’s a performance much closer in style and feeling to Otto Klemperer’s 1961 EMI recording of the bigger, more popular
St. Matthew Passion.
Knowing this, one must review it on its own terms. Despite his lack of a vibrato—or, most likely,
of it—Patzak’s voice is, as it always was, unpleasant to listen to except when he sang softly. He was greatly admired in Germany during the 1940s and 50s as a sensitive and musical interpreter, alive to words and meaning, but his voice always sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. Nevertheless, he does interpret the Evangelist very well. Marga Höffgen, who had a ripe, plummy voice, was a noted Bach contralto of her time, but that was then and now is now. She is, by far, the most old-fashioned sounding of all the soloists. Walter Berry was frequently listed and used as a bass, as he is here, but I never heard his voice as more than a baritone with a short top
low range, though he sings and interprets well. An interesting addition to this cast is Gérard Souzay as Jesus, and he is superb (if, still, too vibrant for the early-music crowd). Uta Graf’s voice was neither stunningly beautiful nor unpleasant, and in retrospect I find it surprising—and a compliment to her—that she was included in so many projects of a difficult musical nature in those years. (She’s also on the Hindemith
as well as on Stokowski’s 1950 performance of the Mahler Eighth Symphony.)
The performance has a gravity and reverence since deemed quaint and unnecessary in Bach, but if you are attuned to this particular aesthetic you’ll enjoy it. We’ve come a very long way since those days in terms of technical precision, but most modern performers haven’t a clue how to move an audience. Fritz Lehmann knew how.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Saint John Passion, BWV 245 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Written: 1724; Leipzig, Germany
Date of Recording: 04/06/1955
Venue: Großer Konzerthaussaal, Vienna, Austria
Length: 109 Minutes 50 Secs.
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