In assessing this new film of a performance of the St Matthew Passion
I’ve found it interesting to recall another performance, by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, that I reviewed
last year. Both performances are given using modern instruments and both are excellent but they ‘feel’ very different. One reason for this is that Iván Fischer, who conducts the Amsterdam performance, takes a rather more objective view of the work than does John Nelson. That’s not an implicit criticism of Fischer, whose performance I admire very much, but just the impression I get in comparing the two. I sense that Nelson sees his performance as more of a spiritual experience.
However, perhaps the crucial difference lies in the two venues. The Amsterdam performance was filmed in the secular, formal surroundings of the Concertgebouw and the director of the film doesn’t hide, for example, the presence of an audience. Furthermore, the choral forces are positioned quite a way back behind the orchestras. In this performance from the Saint-Denis basilica we never see the audience; the cameras focus on the platform. In addition, Nelson’s choirs are right behind the orchestras and close to them with the Evangelist and Jesus between the choirs and the players. The whole ensemble appears tightly knit and they seem more drawn together. As a result, what we experience here seems a more intimate performance than the admirable Dutch version. One way in which director, Louise Narbone heightens the impression not just of intimacy but also of the collegiality of the performance is by including occasional close-ups of singers or musicians who aren’t actually performing at that particular moment. Their maintained concentration is obvious and I found this was quite an illuminating technique, especially as it’s not overdone.
The present performance is excellent, not least because Nelsons has assembled a first-rate team of soloists. Werner Güra is a very fine Evangelist, even if not perhaps as characterful of timbre as the wonderful Mark Padmore on the Concertgebouw set. Güra, like Padmore, is a highly experienced lieder
singer and he brings all that background to bear in a well nuanced and very involving performance. He enunciates the text clearly and with evident care for its meaning. He’s especially expressive in narrating the death of Jesus. My loyalty to Mark Padmore remains unshaken but I found that Güra really drew me into the story and he is a very fine and credible Evangelist. Stephan Morscheck, an American singer, was new to me but I was very impressed with him. He has exactly the sort of vocal and physical bearing that the part of Jesus demands and though he carries a score he scarcely seems to look at it. Like Güra he delivers the recitative with clarity and he brings to his music the appropriate dignity.
There’s another American singer in the cast, the young tenor, Nicholas Phan. He too is a singer who I don’t believe I’ve encountered before but he made a very favourable impression on me, not least in his outstanding account of the aria ‘Geduld’. The preceding recitative is also very well done. Earlier on, his clear, agile tenor is heard to excellent effect in a fluent account of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’. At this stage in his career the arias probably suit his voice best but I’d be interested to hear him as the Evangelist in due course. The other soloists are all very fine. We learn in the accompanying documentary film that this was the first time that Christine Rice had performed the alto arias: one would not know. She offers a great deal of very pleasing and expressive singing. ‘Buß und Reu’, in which she’s supported by two excellent flautists, is done very well and ‘Erbarme dich’ is sung with poise and sincere expression.
Lucy Crowe makes a fine impression in the soprano arias. Her clear, eager sound is well suited to ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ is deeply felt. Here Miss Crowe, supported by a cool, clean flute obbligato, distils a very affecting rarefied atmosphere. Matthew Brook sings the bass arias and also takes the parts of Judas and Pilate. All his arias are very well done but I was particularly impressed by his account of ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ in which his excellent legato enables him to sing the long lyrical lines really well. Bertrand Grunenwald takes the other bass recitative parts.
The choir is the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, an ensemble that comprises students at Oxford University. They do very well indeed. The singing is fresh-toned and committed and very alert. By comparison with the professional singers of the Netherlands Radio Choir, who sing for Iván Fischer, their tone is somewhat light, especially the basses. However, if the good recorded sound has a fault I think it’s that the choir is a little backwardly recorded and when we hear the choir briefly in rehearsal during the documentary film the basses seemed to have a bit more amplitude. However, they still make a sterling contribution to the performance as do the young voices of the Maîtrise de Paris as the ripienists in Part I.
The orchestral playing is of a very high order indeed. The continuo team is superb and there are some excellent obbligato contributions. It’s invidious to single out individuals but the violin solo in ‘Erbarme dich’ is wonderfully played by concert master, Deborah Nemtanu. There’s also a very fine principal flautist in Orchestra I, who is not named. It’s luxury casting indeed to have the gamba part played by no less a luminary than Christophe Coin.
John Nelson’s direction of the score is very interesting. It’s clear that he believes deeply in the score – and that belief is reinforced by his comments in the documentary film, which I watched after the performance. His conducting is often incisive, even though he eschews a baton, and consistently inspiring. However, it was noticeable that in some of the arias that involve sparse accompaniment once he has set the tempo he more or less leaves his musicians to get on with it, adopting a minimalist style of conducting and trusting the performers to deliver what they’ve all worked on together in rehearsal. Mostly I found his pacing of the music very astute though there were a few occasions, mainly later on in the work, when I wondered if in striving for expression he adopted too slow a tempo for one or two of the chorales. I found him an excellent guide to Bach’s masterpiece.
The accompanying documentary film is well worth watching. There’s plenty of comment from John Nelson about the work and his approach to it. We also see him in rehearsal with the soloists and with the choir. The very last shots are taken at the end of what is evidently the dress rehearsal and since everyone is dressed exactly as they are in the main film I wonder if the filmed performance that we see may include some portions edited in from the rehearsal. If that’s the case then the edits are seamless. The only aspect of the presentation which is not good is the absolutely minuscule typeface used in the booklet: I had to resort to a magnifying glass to read the track-list in particular.
This is a fine, committed and very thoughtfully conceived performance of Bach’s great masterpiece. I found it moving and involving.
Previous review (DVD): Kirk McElhearn