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Fanfare Magazine: 37:4 (03-04/2014) 
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Harmonia Mundi
HMC 802156/58

Code-barres / Barcode: 3149020215661 (ID345)

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Reviewer: George Chien


René Jacobs’s new St. Matthew Passion comes lavishly packaged in an attractive square box with a handsomely designed and illustrated 176-page book and a DVD film entitled Rediscovering the Saint Matthew Passion. We’re not supposed to write about the packaging of the new releases, but the Saint Matthew Passion has inspired extravagant presentations since its conception. Bach prepared the manuscript with exceptional care, and well he might have. He must have realized that it was an extraordinary accomplishment. Could he have imagined that 300 years hence it would be revered the world over as possibly the greatest choral masterpiece of all time?

The film includes an extensive interview with Jacobs and shorter interviews with several of the musicians involved in the production, as well as a number of clips from rehearsals, some quite extensive. At the heart of Jacobs’s discourse is the “rediscovery,” promised by the film’s title, based on the theoretical research of Konrad Küster, of the antiphonal nature of the St. Matthew Passion. Customarily its two choirs, two orchestras, and two sets of soloists are placed on opposite sides the performing space (church or hall). What Küster has “rediscovered” is the physical layout of the Thomaskirche, the locations of its two organs, and their implications for the Passion. The first chorus, associated with the church’s main organ, would have been stationed in front of the congregation along with the Evangelist and Jesus, while the second, smaller chorus, associated with the smaller organ, would have been at its back. The first chorus, he notes, is primarily concerned with narration, the second with reflection. The story would have been presented up front, and the meditations, coming from behind, would have floated over the heads of the congregants. Jacobs contends that a front-back arrangement would have been profoundly different from a left-right one. It’s certainly worthy of consideration. The problem, of course, is realizing the concept within the limits of left-right stereo. Obviously, surround sound will greatly enhance the effort.

There’s much to admire in this release, but there are some irritants, too. Start with the DVD. Jacobs, of course, speaks French; some of the other participants do not. There are subtitles in French, English, and German, but unfortunately they do not always stand out sufficiently from the background, and often they are not on the screen long enough to be read. I appreciated Jacobs’s explanation of Küster’s thesis, but I would have welcomed more interpretive insights.

That Jacobs reveres the Passion is clear from his thoroughly considered and effective direction, which is articulated by his singers and players with admirable precision and beauty. (Jacobs explicitly rejects one-to-a-part, by the way.) For my taste, however, Jacobs simply can’t leave well enough alone. Heaven knows, if “well enough” describes anything at all, it’s the St. Matthew Passion. He can’t resist exerting a little push here or a little pull there. He tries too hard.

Some things may take getting used to. For example, the prominence of the lute, played by Shizuko Noiri, in the continuo group, is unusual but quite nice, actually. Some of the soloists, especially early on, sound inhibited, as if using their full voices might break some reverential spell. It happens too often to be coincidental. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it seems forced Jacobs’s chorale treatment is retro. He meticulously shapes each phrase and observes the fermatas, holding designated notes and pausing before starting the next phrase. There’s nothing wrong with that, either, but it sounds more like Willem Mengelberg than John Eliot Gardiner. Jacobs leads the restless opening chorus at a monumental pace, but zips through the final “Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’!” (Rest softly, rest well!) What’s that all about?

I’m sure that many listeners will find this recording enthralling, and good for them. I just won’t be one of them.

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