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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Saint Matthew Passion
Werner Güra (tenor) - Evangelist; Stephen Morscheck (bass) - Jesus; Lucy Crowe (soprano); Christine Rice (mezzo); Nicholas Phan (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass); Bertrand Grunenwald (bass)
Schola Cantorum of Oxford; Maîtrise de Paris
Orchestre de Chambre de Paris/John Nelson
rec. July 2011, Basilique de Saint-Denis.
Picture format: NTSC, 16:9; Sound format: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS 5.1; Region Code: 0 (Worldwide).
EUROARTS 3079658 [177:00 + 52:00 (bonus)]  

If I were forced to choose just one work by Johann Sebastian Bach to take to the proverbial desert island, or on a trip to another planet, it would have to be the Saint Matthew Passion. It’s arguably Bach's most "complete" work, one that tells a story, but also one that contains a great deal of music that is representative of Bach’s many styles. While I love his keyboard pieces, and other instrumental music, it is in the sacred works that Bach set down the most accomplished music.
The Saint Matthew Passion is not an easy work, being around three hours long, but it holds my attention each time I hear it, much more than any opera. It contains some of Bach's finest arias - such as Erbarme dich - and some of his best choral writing. You find some of the same qualities in Bach's 200-odd cantatas, but this, and Bach's other completed passion, the Saint John, are the epitome of his sacred works. It's a shame that we don't have the other three passions that Bach reportedly composed.
The Saint Matthew Passion is a work for large forces. It’s scored for two choirs and two orchestras though the instrumental ensembles are not very large. Bach uses the choirs constantly, and a good performance depends on having excellent choristers. There is a great deal of interplay between the choirs, the soloists and the Evangelist, who sings interpolated texts throughout the work. Add to these elements a number of recitatives by the other soloists.
Some listeners and viewers may find these texts a bit redundant, but they make up the structure on which the work is built.
For this recording, John Nelson leads the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, divided in two groups, and two choirs: the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and the Maîtrise de Paris. Performed in the Basilique de Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, this performance benefits from an excellent setting. Fortunately, the director of this film does not spend much time lingering on the interior of the church. The feeling when watching this is more of attending an intimate performance, as much of the camera-work involves close-ups on a single person. We see, among others, Nelson conducting, a soloist singing, or an instrumentalist playing during an aria.
While the Saint Matthew Passion is on a large scale, most of the arias are performed by a single singer together with a small group of instruments, often with obbligato flute, violin or oboe. Nelson has a good selection of soloists at his disposal. The two women, Lucy Crowe, soprano, and Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano, are both cut from the strongest yet finest cloth. I felt Rice was overdoing her vibrato at times, though in Erbarme dich, she is excellent. Crowe's voice struggles to be heard over the instruments at times, but when she is at the right volume, her light voice fits the music very well.
Tenor Werner Güra has the key role of The Evangelist, and is admirable as the one whose singing holds the work together. He brings sturdy dramatic tension to the table. Bass Stephen Morscheck, as Jesus, is firm and solid in his singing and recitatives, sounding more flexible than many performers in this role.
As for the other male soloists, tenor Nicholas Phan puts a great deal of emotion into his singing; too much at times, because he is much louder than necessary. In the lovely aria for tenor, solo oboe and choir, Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen, Phan shows a mastery of the music, but again, the sound gets muddled, detracting from the overall impression. However, Phan's high register, in Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille, is riveting. There he sings together with a viola da gamba that beats out a rhythmic pulse, then plays an obbligato part in counterpoint to Phan's melody.
The choirs in this performance are very good, though they sound a bit blurred at times. The music comes through well, but not the words. There is a general lack of definition when the choirs are singing, or when the entire orchestra is playing. For example, there is a distinct feeling of blurriness when listening to the final number of Part 1, O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, with both choirs and orchestras.
Nelson uses relatively fast tempi in his reading, which helps give the work a lot of energy, and keeps it from sounding overly solemn. As I watched and listened I was struck by how many times the sound didn't seem adequately balanced. If there's a weakness in this film it is that: singers are too soft or too loud, the choir can sound vague and the overall audio image can lack sharpness. The instrumentalists are outstanding, especially when one or two instruments accompany a singer during an aria, but when everyone is playing, the definition of the sound suffers. I watched this on a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, played through a Yamaha RX A-1010, and Focal Chorus speakers, and listened to the stereo mix.
A second disc, called The Journey, is a 52-minute documentary about the work, and about Nelson's approach. Nelson points out how complex the work is, because of the forces, the solo instrumental parts, and the multiple choirs. As is typical of this sort of ‘making of’ piece, there are interviews and films of rehearsals. It gives an interesting insight into what it takes to perform this work, and helps you understand how difficult it can be.
Overall, this is a visually appealing performance, with first rate musicians, and very well directed for the screen. My enjoyment was slightly marred by the lack of aural crispness. Whether this is due to the church itself, the microphone placement or the mix, better sound would have made this a superb disc.  

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.