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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
, BWV 244, (arr. Mendelssohn, 1841 version) [111:39]
Jörg Dürmüller (tenor) – Evangelist and arias; Marcos Fink (bass) – Jesus; Judith van Wanroij (soprano); Helena Rasker (alto); Maarten Koningsberger (bass); Elske te Lindert – Ancilla I; Chantal Nijsingh – Ancilla II; Minou Tripp – Testis I; Arjen van Gijssel – Testis II;
Consensus Vocalis; Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. live, 4 April 2014, Musiekcentrum Enschede, The Netherlands.
German text included
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72661 SACD [54:51 + 56:48]

In March 1829 the young Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the Matthäus-Passion in Berlin. According to the booklet notes this was the first performance of the work for almost one hundred years. It was a great success, so much so that the work was repeated twice in the following few weeks. Subsequent performances in other German cities followed and in 1841 Mendelssohn conducted another, in the Thomaskirche itself in Leipzig.

That much I knew – or some of it. What I had not realised until receiving this set for review was the extent of the cuts and changes that Mendelssohn felt obliged to make to the score. Some of these changes were occasioned by the fact that instruments such as the viola da gamba and the oboe da caccia and oboe d’amore were no longer in common currency. Other modifications were made in order to render the work acceptable to a nineteenth-century concert audience. No fewer than ten arias were jettisoned. So too were four recitatives and five chorales and over thirty changes – notational and excisions - were made to the Evangelist’s narrative. Some alto solos, including ‘Buß und Reu’ and ‘Erbarme dich’, were allocated instead to the soprano voice. For the 1841 performance Mendelssohn reversed some of the cuts, restoring four arias and a chorale. It is this version of the score that Jan Willem de Vriend presents here. Modern instruments, including clarinets, were used by Mendelssohn, as is the case here. The continuo is provided by two cellos, playing double stops, and a double bass. All this information, and more, is provided in the booklet.

What all this means is that the nature of the work is altered; much of its contemplative, reflective aspect is sacrificed and the focus is shifted towards the Passion Gospel narrative. Such sublime arias as ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’, ‘Konnen Tränen meiner Wangen’ and ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ will not be found here. Bach devotees will regret their omission but I don’t believe we should castigate Mendelssohn for making the cuts. He was anything but an insensitive musician, as his own compositions amply demonstrate, and we must presume he was able to judge the likely taste of an 1829 audience. I suppose Bach’s masterpiece would have been revived eventually but Mendelssohn made that happen when it did and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude.

The opening chorus of Part I is largely as one would expect in a modern instrument performance except that the chorale, ‘O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig’, is sung not by a ripieno choir of sopranos or trebles but by the solo quartet. We notice modifications to the Evangelist’s recitatives fairly early on: in the very first one the line is modified so as to omit the top As. To be honest, the modifications aren’t too significant in Part I – and I find it hard to see why Mendelssohn made these small changes of notation. The major alterations come in Part II where quite a number of significant cuts are made to the Evangelist’s recitatives. Interestingly, all of the Christus recitatives are left unaltered.

The first big change that listeners will notice is that ‘Du lieber Heiland’ and the aria, ‘Buß und Reu’ that follows are given to the soprano soloist rather than the alto. We’re told in the notes that for the 1829 performance Mendelssohn’s cuts didn’t leave enough for the soprano soloists at his disposal to sing so the alto lost some solos. As the original keys are preserved in the re-allocated solos it means that quite a bit of the music is rather low-lying for a soprano but Judith van Wanroij manages well enough. In ‘Buß und Reu’ the da capo is omitted except for its orchestra introduction, which thus becomes a postlude. ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ and its preceding recit are cut, as are ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and its recit.

In Part II, as well as quite a number of cuts to the Evangelist’s part we lose the tenor aria ‘Geduld!’ as well as the preceding recit. Later ‘Erbarme dich’ is sung by the soprano rather than the alto. Again, much of the line lies quite low for a soprano. A fairly fleet tempo is adopted for this aria by de Vriend – I would have preferred it just a fraction slower. There are two short passages (bar 32 and bars 39-40) where the vocal line is completely altered into something much higher and, frankly showy. These two changes may be Mendelssohn’s work but if so they are the only instances of a significant modification to the vocal line that I detected in any aria. I have to say that I found them tasteless. The heavenly aria ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ is not omitted but listeners will notice a significant difference here and in the recit that precedes it. Mendelssohn allotted the oboe da caccia parts to clarinets and their mellow tone gives a softer hue to the accompaniments, which is interesting to hear though I’m sorry that we’re deprived of the instrumental postlude to the aria. Mendelssohn left out ‘Konnen Tränen meiner Wangen’ though, oddly, the preceding recitativo remains. The recit before ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ is omitted, as is the aria itself, the latter a grievous loss. ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ was left in – and the supple clarinets replace the oboi da caccia – but not only did Mendelssohn omit the da capo but also the central section of the aria, which rather emasculates it.

Several chorales are omitted in the course of the work but all the choruses themselves are retained intact.

It’s right to list the significant modifications to Bach’s text and some may consider all this to be an act of butchery. However, I suspect Mendelssohn’s view was that half a loaf was better than no bread and his version is a key event in the performance history of the Matthäus-Passion. The score is pretty well served by de Vriend and his team. The recitatives are well paced and the tempi adopted for the choruses and arias strike me as judicious. On the whole de Vriend takes a broad approach to the chorales, certainly by comparison with some ‘period’ performances I’ve heard. Having said that, he doesn’t allow them to drag and the tempi are suitable as they ensure that the chorales are appropriately reflective.

The five principal soloists do well. Both Judith van Wanroij and Helena Rasker have strong, expressive voices and they’re not afraid to warm the tone with vibrato. The style would be inappropriate for a ‘period’ performance but this is an account of Mendelssohn’s early-Romantic take on the score so it fits. Jörg Dürmüller and Maarten Koningsberger do the tenor and bass arias well. Marcos Fink is an authoritative and convincing Jesus though occasionally I had the impression that his high notes were just a little pressured. Jörg Dürmüller tells the story in a forthright way. He sings well and his performance is by no means devoid of expression. However, I certainly don’t hear the poetry and sensitivity that singers such as James Gilchrist or Mark Padmore bring to the role of the Evangelist.

The contribution of Consensus Vocalis is very fine. I don’t know how large the choir was for this performance – 22 singers are shown in the publicity photograph in the booklet but it sounds like a slightly more substantial group is involved. The choral singing is flexible and there’s ample body of tone, though the results are never too heavy. The engineers have presented an excellent and natural division between Choirs I and II, which is so important in this work. The orchestra plays with sensitivity and finesse. The sound is rich but never cloying and the players are able to invest passages such as ‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’ with fire and excitement. At first I thought that the string continuo group was a touch on the heavy side but my ears soon adjusted.

Clearly, this can’t be a library choice for the Matthäus-Passion but it’s a valuable supplement to performances of Bach’s standard text. Yes, there are significant cuts but I would urge people to look beyond them and to experience Mendelssohn’s important evangelical work on Bach’s behalf for themselves. I don’t know if the Mendelssohn version has been recorded before – this isn’t claimed as a first recording – but opportunities to experience it will not come frequently and it is most interesting to hear.

It remains to say the SACD sound is very good indeed. The recording was made at a live performance but though I could sometimes hear the performers standing up to sing – and these weren’t distracting at all – the audience was commendably silent throughout. There’s no applause at the end. There’s a useful booklet note in English as well as German which makes the decision not to supply an English translation of the words rather a surprise.

Jan Willem de Vriend has a Mendelssohn symphony cycle in progress for Challenge Classics of which I have heard the Second Symphony (review). Dominy Clements reviewed the volume containing the First and Fourth symphonies. I don’t know if the other two symphonies have yet appeared. However, the composer’s version of the Matthäus-Passion is an unexpected bonus to the symphonies. I wonder if de Vriend intends to record St. Paul and Elijah? I do hope so.

John Quinn


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