An excellent St. Matthew Passion at budget price
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 04/16/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There have been more than forty recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion over the years. Not all of them are available, of course, but it is surprising how many one can still find. So, the question arises, what makes this performance worth considering? First, I suppose, because it is from Naxos, is price. But indeed some of the famous and well-loved versions from yesteryear are now also available at a budget price. This version, of course, has the advantage of modern sound. Still, one has to ask why this one? Well, one answer is that Helmut Muller-Bruhl directs a very alert, sensitive, almost swinging version. Second, although the soloists are virtually unknown, there is some exquisite singing here. Particularly notable is the Evangelist of tenor Nico van der Meel, whose supple, clear voice is coupled with impeccable diction and a direct communication of the meaning of the text. If one understands German one does not need to read the libretto to follow along. (There is no libretto included in the booklet but Naxos provides a very nice libretto in German with English translation at www.naxos.com/libretti/stmatthew.htm in Adobe pdf format.) The other soloists are almost his equal. Jesus is sung in a rich, resonant bass-baritone by Raimund Nolte. The other named men in the libretto (Peter/Judas/Pilate/Pontifex) are sung nicely by bass Locky Chung. The 'hit tune' of the work (aside from the glorious repeated chorale) 'Erbarme dich' is sung gracefully by alto Marianne Beate Kielland; I did not particularly like her earlier CD of sacred solo Bach cantatas but here she is just fine and the important violin obbligato is exquisite; the violinist is not identified but presumably it is Orchestra I's concertmaster, Christine Ojstersek.
Best of all are the 'accompanying' forces -- the Dresden Chamber Choir, the Cologne Cathedral Boys' Choir, and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. There are superb -- there's no other word for it. The orchestra uses modern instruments but hews fairly closely to current notions of baroque performance practice and the sounds they produce are extraordinarily beautiful. This is some of the best choral singing of this work I've ever heard, matched only by Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir in my estimation.
I spent much of Good Friday and Holy Saturday listening to this wonderful performance and my admiration grew with extended listening. I have no hesitation in recommending it, although I will not be getting rid of my earlier recordings that include those conducted by Gardiner, McCreesh, Herreweghe, Karl Richter or the 1938 Mengelberg among others.