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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1727)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor) – Evangelist
Max van Egmond (bass) – Jesus
René Jacobs and David Cordier (counter tenors)
Marcus Schäfer and John Elwes (tenors)
Klaus Mertens and Peter Lika (basses)
Tölzer Knabenchor
Men’s Choir of La Petite Bande
La Petite Bande/Gustav Leonhardt
Recorded Doopsgezinde Church, Haarlem, March 1989
St John Passion BWV 245 (1724 revised 1730 and late 1740s)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor) – Evangelist
Harry van der Kamp (bass) – Jesus
Barbara Schlick (soprano)
René Jacobs (counter tenor)
Nico van der Meel (tenor)
Max van Egmond (bass)
Choir and Orchestra of La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
Recorded Doopsgezinde Gemeente, Haarlem, March – April 1987
BMG CLASSICS DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 82876 67402 2 [5 CDs 74.40 + 51.20 + 46.32 + 59.30 + 62.49]

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Reissued in a slipcase these five CDs enshrine two Dutch recordings made within a couple of years of each other in Haarlem. They share other things as well: the same band, the excellent La Petite Bande, and three singers all of whom are distinguished exponents. There is a certain logic to the coupling therefore and one that will appeal to those interested in historically informed performance practice.

Leonhardt’s St Matthew Passion uses an all male choir; a boys’ choir, the German Tölzer Knabenchor from whose ranks come the two boy soloists for the soprano arias, and the Men’s Choir of La Petite Bande. The direction is noble, spacious, powerfully expressive and rather introverted. It is clearly deeply rooted in musicological and textual analysis and in conveying spiritual depth. I would characterise it as meditative rather than dramatic though obviously the two terms are, in their subtle musical ways, not necessarily exclusive. The note is struck from the first chorus in which slowly unravelling stands, precise but never coldly explicated, reveal themselves. Accents are calibrated – though I do have something to say about Leonhardt’s accents below – and the boys’ choir is properly clear and aerated, open and less polished and pure than their British counterparts but gaining in a degree of richness. The boy soloists take their roles with commendable vigour though the results can be variable. René Jacobs strikes me as a rather matter-of-fact presence; the voice is clear and well equalized though not especially warm or capable of much colouristic inflexion (see Buss und Rau in Part I) and whilst his Erbarme Dich is attractively done it is seen through the prism of Leonhardt’s strict contemplation.

The Evangelist is Christoph Prégardien, an experienced singer of the role who has also recorded it with Harnoncourt. His Er antwortete und sprach and the Jesus, Max van Egmond’s responses, embody great gravity and warmth and are features of the performance, ones that on their own elevate this recording. One can hear how much detail has been considered in the question of the balance when one listens to the organ in the First Part Chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross and, as with the vocal forces, textures are here clear and aerated. Klaus Mertens and John Elwes also stand out for their dignity and intimate correlation of tone to text.

On the matter of Leonhardt’s handling of a number of the chorales I have more negative feelings. Those such as Part II’s Mir hat die Welt and O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden are examples of his insistence on accent swellings that sound to me mannered if not perverse in the context. And it’s true that the choral forces, whilst strong, are not invariably commanding; the boy soloists are also variable. So whilst I admire much here – the elevation, the seriousness and sensitivity and the august contemplative spirit that Leonhardt evokes there are certain weaknesses that must also be considered. Of them I think the handling of some chorales is the most pressing.

Coupled with the St Matthew is the St John Passion directed by the first violinist of La Petite Band, Sigiswald Kuijken. This is a less contentious recording but also a less rewarding one. There are real merits in the band’s spirited playing and in some of the first class soloists, Prégardien, van Egmond and Barbara Schlick amongst them. But the opening chorus sounds very devitalised and rather dogged and it’s the latter word that stuck in my mind as I listened to the performance as a whole. It’s true that the majority of the choruses are better than the opening one – Part I’s Wer hat dich so geschlagen happens to be well done, reverential, slow and attractive. And I like the way in which the engineers have caught the lute in Part II’s bass arioso Betrachte, meine Seel where van Egmond once more impresses. Nevertheless the men in the chorus are not incisive enough in Wir haben ein Gesetz and for all his skill Jacobs doesn’t quite manage to vest his great aria Es ist vollbracht with the requisite sense of moving humanity. On the credit side tempi are moderate, as with Leonhardt, and much is sympathetic and convincing. The liabilities, though marginal, do mount up.

The question of alternative recommendations is complicated by the fact that these two recordings are yoked together in one slipcase and it’s perhaps better to avoid the issue altogether. Neither, in truth, ultimately convinces but I would argue that the Leonhardt contains within it a stratum of profundity that repays close listening. Notes and texts are as per previous releases

Jonathan Woolf

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