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GRAMOPHONE (06/2016)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman‑Attwood

Frieder Bernius is a Bachian whose work with his choir and period orchestra in Stuttgart has quietly made its mark over the years, not least in an especially fine Mass in B minor from 2004 (3/07), whose grip of line in the most complex movements is often sensationally coherent, and matched by some ravishingly characterised solos.


Bernius’s St Matthew sets sail with an unforced and naturally inflected imagery, sustained by eloquent accompaniments (wonderfully articulated and balanced bass‑lines from the very first bar) and vocal contributions evangelising on the text with refreshing clarity and even a hint of asceticism, such as the unhurried appoggiaturas and bell-like restraint of Hannah Morrison’s ‘Blute nur’. Indeed, this soon turns into a quite a subtly manipulated way of working: both Tilman Lichdi’s even-handed reportage as Evangelist and Christian Immler’s resigned Jesus certainly position the narrative in the emotional slow-burn lane.


The details of instrumental signposting are affectingly curated in Bernius’s impressive command of the score. Never mannered, the ‘tableau’ from the foretelling of Peter’s denial to his betrayal by Judas unfolds with an inevitable luminosity, reaching its first true point of arrival at ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’; after the metaphysical allusions of this magical duet, Bernius’s forces become significantly more animated with the graphic fury of lightning and thunder and the fleeing disciples after the altercation in the garden.


Yet, even with this added viscerality and graphic immediacy, especially in the choral interjections which increasingly carry the action in Part 2, Bernius’s trajectory remains frustratingly flat. Part of this stems from Lichdi’s inability to make a successful transition from his capable if occasionally wearing Evangelist to over-stretched soloist; how much more assuaging ‘Geduld’ would have been with a dedicated soloist. More to the point, Bernius struggles to resume his new-found dramatic momentum after underwhelming arias.


In truth, only Peter Harvey’s solo contribution can be ranked among the best in the work’s formidable discography. ‘Mache dich’ doesn’t quite reach the consuming heights of Matthew Brook for John Butt and the Dunedins but is nonetheless beautifully seasoned and suitably absorbing. There’s something pleasingly unaffected about Sophie Harmsen’s ‘Erbarme dich’ but it conveys none of the colour, expressive range or control of Sarah Connolly for Richard Egarr.


This reading ultimately disappoints in its over-containment as drama, despite Bernius’s evidently distinctive and often eloquent vision. His attention to detail and ringing ensembles are among the best. If only a little more solo vocal quality and collective release had provided the ingredients to allow it to take on a life of its own.

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