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Reviewer: Simon Heighes
This feels expensive. The box alone is four centimetres thick, housing a chunky book and bonus DVD in addition to the two gleaming hybrid SACDs. There are eight high-profile soloists, a first-rate chorus and orchestra, as welll as radical new ideas about how Bach may have originally performed the work. I’ll outline the novelties in a moment, but after several weeks of listening, my overwhelming feeling is that, at root, this is quite traditional performance, drawing as it does on René Jacobs’s long involvement with the work dating back to his years as a choirboy and as a young countertenor. The assembled forces are quite large: a choir of 50 (36 singers from the RIAS Chamber Choir and 16 boy trebles), accompanied by the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik with a 24-strong string section. This is not minimal Bach then, and in the accompanying booklet Jacobs meticulously lists all his reservations about performing Bach with the one- or two-to-a part forces adopted by some other performers in the field.
However, Jacobs has no qualms about making use of the radical theories of one Konrad Küster, who, in a lengthy essay, suggests that Bach’s scoring (for two choirs and two orchestras) had both practical and theological implications we have yet fully to grasp . The rather protracted explanation of his basically simple idea reminded me of an excellent old Monty Python sketch in which, after endless prevarications, an expert on prehistoric animals finally reveals that her new theory is that ‘all Brontosauruses were thin at one end and big at the other’ . Küster’s thesis basically boils down to the suggestion that Bach’s two choirs (and their accompanying orchestras) weren’t placed side by side at the front of St Thomas’s in Leipzig as we’d always imagined, but actually performed facing each other at opposite ends of the central nave — 28 metres apart. They were thin at the front end — a small group up in the ‘swallow’s nest’ Gallery high above the Triumphal Arch at the front of the church — and big at the back, where the larger forces of the first Choir and Orchestra were arrayed in the spacious West Gallery at the rear of the church. (Although neither Küster nor Jacobs makes the point, it helps to know that congregations at St Thomas’s were used to hearing music coming from the back of the church, since this is where the main choir and organ lofts were located.
Küster also reminds us that in Bach’s autograph score he allocates the solo parts to specific voices within Choir I and II. In Choir I the music is exclusively concerned with the ‘here and now’ of the Passion events, and so includes the Gospel narrative sung by the Evangelist, Jesus and the other named characters and multitudes, plus those arias and other movements whose texts offer ‘eye witness’ accounts. Choir II is remote from these events, with arias which contemplate the action, or choral contributions which voice the thoughts of present-day believers. So, Bach’s congregation would have heard the biblical drama unfolding behind them, and a more modern, contemplative viewpoint from in front, although the exact perspective would have depended on where you were sitting. Even so, Küster argues, by separating the performers by the distance of the central Nave, the distinct function of Bach’s two groups of performers would have been all the easier to comprehend. This reveals many subtleties which are often lost on us today. I’ll mention simply the example of the two false witnesses, who, as part of the Gospel narrative, should be sung by singers from Choir I at the back of the church, but are instead assigned by Bach to Choir II, to emphasize their duplicity.
This may leave you wondering how on earth a back-to-front arrangement of vocal and instrumental forces can be realistically recorded, given that conventional music systems work on a left-to-right, stereo basis. Well, there’s no accurate solution. Jacobs tells us that ‘An effect of sonic depth replaces the usual left to right effect. ‘To really grasp what’s going on, it’s worth watching the accompanying DVD, which shows the layout of the performers in the recording studio: two choirs and orchestras facing each other, fairly close together, with Jacobs directing from the middle. But this is not what we actually hear. With the benefit of some digital technology, the CD presents the performers of Choir and Orchestra I in the foreground, and Choir and Orchestra II placed a little behind them with a slightly distant acoustic. It works quite well on good hi-fi, but the distinction is much less clear on smaller systems. The SACD layer on the discs could provide the correct surround-sound solution, but it doesn’t because this would mean having the essential biblical drama unfolding on the smaller rear speakers, while the reflective music would be distantly placed on the main front speakers.
It’s interesting that Jacobs has no time for the well-documented German practice of using small performing forces, but is quite happy to embrace an entirely experimental theory which is much more difficult to bring off convincingly. For many listeners, there will be distinct drawbacks in hearing much loved arias like ‘Blute nur’ sung at a distance (and rather fast to compensate for the sense of separation). But Jacobs offers the disclaimer that the recording is just an attempt to ‘translate Bach’s idea [of separate Gospel drama and contemporary contemplation] into sound . . . it has neither the desire nor the capacity to reconstruct a historical performance’. Indeed not. Jacobs ultimately performs the work in the way he wants. As if the physical separation of Choir I and II was not already enough, he then divides Choir I into two separate groups of 12 singers (for which there is no historical justification) . In clear contradiction of Bach’s autograph — and the central plank of Küster’s theory — Jacobs reverts to the nineteenth century, and does not let his soloists sing in the choirs to which they belong. Another of Jacobs’s ‘initiatives’ is to add a lute to the continuo section. Admittedly, there are associations between the lute and Bach’s mourning style — the aria ‘Komm süβes Kreuz’ has a lute obbligato — but there’s no evidene at all that Bach used a continuo lute in any of his St Matthew Passion performances.
Nevertheless, this is undoubtedly an exciting listen — perhaps more exciting than moving. On my well-set-up hi-fi, I can clearly distinguish between the two bodies of performers, and this does enhance my understanding of the perspective and meaning of Pisander’s freely written poetic texts and Bach’s distribution of them. Jacobs’s soloists are drawn from the world of opera, oratorio and Lieder, so are all vividly text-aware but clearly under strict orders to keep a lid on their emotions: ‘our suffering along with Jesus’, says Jacobs, ‘excludes all soft-heartedness , all excessive lingering in “celebrating” the music’ . Bass Johannes Weisser has both gravity and humanity as Christus, but plays it fairly straight. Werner Güra begins as a lyrical Evangelist but becomes increasingly declamatory — even to the point of a whisper as he recounts Judas’s betrayal. He’s a magnificent story-teller, drawing us into the unfolding drama with the sheer variety and emotional involvement of his singing. Occasionally, at moments of high tension, he’s encouraged to rattle away rather fast, especially in the lead-up to a crowd chorus, and it can be hard to get all the words . The rending of the veil of the Temple is over in a flash, and its illustrative bass line suffers from a little motion-blur. In highly charged secco recitatives the attack on some of the continuo chords (from the string bass and lute) can be abrupt and percussive, but the performers are not shy of bringing real tonal richness to accompanied recitatives like ‘Am Abend’, which almost verges on the sensual.
In the arias, Bernarda Fink’s naturally plangent tones serve her well in ‘Buβ und Reu’ and ‘Erbarme dich’ without her having to inflect the vocal lines very heavily; ‘Erbarme dich’ is utterly unsentimental and very simply done by both voice and violin. Soprano Sunhae Im is both precise and warm in tone, and in ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ concentrates on the over-arching phrasing of paragraphs, rather than the detail of every sentence (while the bassoonist has lots of reedy fun with the bass line). The bass (unidentified) who sings the final aria ‘Mache dich’ doesn’t quite have the depth to take Bach’s lowest notes easily in his stride, but Konstantin Wolff brings a glowing, beautifully shaped tone to the intimate ‘Komm süβes Kreuz’ — twice (once for lute, and once with gamba obbligato in an appendix).
The singing of the RIAS Chamber Choir is all that could be asked for in terms of clarity, articulation and character. In the crowd choruses especially it dramatizes the words effectively — ‘Sind Blitzer, sind Donner’ — without acting them out too graphically. The use of single voices in ‘Herr, bin Ichs?’, for the disciples, is immediately effective. The great opening and closing choruses, with the added boys’ choir, carry due weight but not too much burden of sorrow. The chorales are clearly differentiated according to their relevance to the narrative, and Jacobs is a believer in resting after each clause and not singing through the meditative pauses.
There’s much to enjoy here, but we should remember that
Jacobs makes no claims for historical accuracy. He chooses which scholarly
ideas appeal to him and uses them as the starting point for his own
interpretation. It’s excitingly dramatic in the narrative sections,
emotionally measured in the contemplative movements and very tightly joined
up — never more than a breath between dramatically related movements. The
modest physical distancing of half of the performers may take a little
getting used to but, if we listen closely, it can help clarify the design
and meaning of the text, and perhaps bring us closer to Bach’s own
understanding of the work.