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GRAMOPHONE (07/2015)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman‑Attwood



The historical interest of Mendelssohn’s text of the St Matthew perhaps lies less in the details of the version than the pivotal importance of two performances (in 1829 and 1841) generally considered to have been the most important catalyst in Bach’s reputational elevation after 75 years of little more than quiet connoisseurship. Even so, it’s a riveting paradigm of the revisitation of this masterpiece, alighting as it does on the relative austerity of 19th-century Protestantism. It is the second score, from the performance in St Thomas’s, Leipzig, that Jan Willem de Vriend employs for this recording, and there is good reason: the earlier Berlin version contained significant cuts which Mendelssohn judiciously reinstated in 1841, and he later felt – doubtless in the spirit of early antiquarianism – that a piano for the recitatives was far from ideal. Now we have a two-cello and double bass continuo and other pragmatic tweaks. What we have learnt from previous recordings is Mendelssohn’s greater respect for the rhetoric, moderate scale and direct urgency of the music than the subsequent generation of Victorian choral societies who embarked on Bach’s ‘Great Passion’ with the manoeuvrability of a large battleship. Here we have a light-footed, modern-instrument account which gently projects the textural divergence and melodic simplification of ‘awkward’ Baroque contours, although ‘Erbarme dich’ for soprano rather reverses the trend with its extrovert reworking. Most striking are the deftly pointed recitatives, which reflect Mendelssohn’s attention to narrative immediacy above all.


Despite Marcos Fink’s tonally unsettled Christus and Jörg Dürmüller stretched a little too far as Evangelist and soloist, de Vriend certainly evokes the spirit of Mendelssohn’s age. ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’ stands out, astonishing within a tableau of so few arias, and the chorales seem truly congregational, similar to what we experience in Mendelssohn’s own Paulus. If a part of this aesthetic is clearly conveyed, there is a conundrum with the pacing; whether deliberately avoiding fashionable ‘period’ momentum or not, often we experience something studiously static.


Christoph Spering’s more astringent ‘period’ instrument reading (Opus 111, 9/93 – nla) will satisfy those seeking studied objectivity with, for the most part, excellent singing. At the other extreme, Diego Fasolis (Assai, 4/03 – nla) offers a far more dramatically engaged and kaleidoscopic journey, despite an untidy production showing its hem at every corner with changing sound pictures and litany of clicks and clunks. This current recording lies, temperamentally, somewhere in the middle, though the singing is ultimately not good enough to compete with either, and it rarely imparts that intensity and ‘robust genius’ which so entranced Hegel and other luminaries in the audience.



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