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Fanfare Magazine: 39:1 (09-10/2015) 
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Challenge Classics

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Reviewer: James A. Altena

While the supposition that J. S. Bach disappeared into a musical black hole for almost 80 years after his death is a myth, it certainly is true that he was brought back to public consciousness in a major way by the daring decision of the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn to revive the St. Matthew Passion for an 1829 belated centenary observance of its 1727 premiere performance. (For a hilariously lurid fictional account of this episode in Mendelssohn’s life, which the Kirkus Review with deadpan understatement observes “seems ruthlessly uninterested in authenticity,” read the 1955 potboiler novel Beyond Desire by Pierre La Murre.) As most readers also likely already know, Mendelssohn did not simply bring the work out of storage, but drastically reshaped it. He originally cut out almost half of the score, re-orchestrated the remainder (à la Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, clarinets are prominently introduced throughout), re-assigned some arias to different voice ranges, and made manifold adjustments to the recitatives to adapt their melodic contours more closely to the expectations of early 19th-century audiences. In 1841 he revisited his handiwork, restoring several portions of the score (though about an hour’s worth is still missing) and making other adjustments. In addition to the pruning of the recitative passages throughout, the other items still omitted in the 1841 version (the one recorded here) are:

#12: “Wie wohl mein Herz in Tränen schwimmt” (soprano recitative)

#13: “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” (soprano aria)

#17: “Ich will hier bei dir stehen” (chorale)

#22: “Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder” (bass recitative)

#23: “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” (bass aria

#32: “Mir hat die Welt trüglich gericht” (chorale)

#34: “Mein Jesu schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille” (tenor recitative)

#35: “Geduld, Geduld!” (tenor aria)

#40: “Bin ich gleich von dir gewichen” (chorale)

#44: “Befiehl du deine Wege” (chorale)

#46: “Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe” (chorale)

#52: “Können Tränen meiner Wangen” (alto aria)

#54b: “Du edles Angesichte” [verse 2 of “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”] (chorale)

#56: “Ja, freilich will in uns” (bass recitative)

#57: “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (bass aria)

#60: “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand” (alto aria with choir)

From a modern standpoint, it is very easy to decry what Mendelssohn did as shameful musical vandalism of a work of the highest genius. Alternatively, one can view it in a manner akin to Rimsky-Korsakov’s admittedly less radical but still comprehensive reworking of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov: While we may regret and even lament the apparent need for such wholesale alterations to make the St. Matthew Passion more acceptable to audiences of the era, we can presume that a man of Mendelssohn’s own indisputable genius had a keen sense of what could and would work, and acted as he did to reverse to the extent possible in his own day the unjust neglect into which Bach’s work had fallen. For the extraordinary success of that effort, the world remains forever in his debt; and, as with many other such adaptations (see likewise Schumann’s version of the St. John Passion, also recently recorded), it gives us a unique opportunity to see very directly the thoughts of one master composer on the masterpiece of another, even if in terms of active performing repertoire the result is now primarily a curiosity. (Some of Mendelssohn’s touches are actually quite striking; for example, the use of a pair of clarinets instead of oboes to accompany the bass aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” is nothing short of lovely, and had Bach lived a century later one can well imagine him doing something very similar.) Still, this makes for a very fine workable alternative for, e.g., local symphony orchestras and choruses of limited means that use modern instruments and need to remain within the present two-hour standard concert time frame. (It’s constantly still being done with Handel’s Messiah every Advent season, so why not with Bach for Lent?)

There has been one previous recording of this Bach/Mendelssohn version, an Opus 111 set from 2000 with Christoph Spering conducting a team of soloists (Angela Kazimierczuk, Alison Browner, Wilfried Jochens, Markus Schaefer, Peter Lika, and Franz-Josef Selig), the Chorus Musicus, and Das Neue Orchestra. (It apparently was not received by Fanfare for review). That is a good performance, but not without flaws: The Jesus of Peter Lika is a bit ordinary, the normally excellent Markus Schaefer is in extremely poor voice with a persistent wobble, and Spering tends to drag some of the tempos. This newcomer is superior in every way. The soloists are virtually all top-notch (only Maarten Koningsberger in the bass arias is merely good); the chorus and orchestra likewise excel; de Vriend shaves over 10 minutes off of Spering’s timing in a performance that moves fluidly without ever sounding rushed; and the SACD recording technology is an added bonus. (On a side note, about 20 years ago I once stayed in Enschede, where this live performance took place, to present an academic research paper at the University of Twente; it’s a very nice city.) My only complaint is that the libretto is provided only in German, though the remainder of the booklet (including its informative essay) is also given in English. While this set obviously will not be a substitute for Bach’s original in anyone’s collection, if the concept intrigues you, by all means go for it; cordially recommended.



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