Bach’s St Matthew Passion – Leipzig Gewandhaus/Chailly

0 of 5 stars

St Matthew Passion, BWV244

Evangelist – Johannes Chum
Christus – Hanno Müller-Brachmann

Christina Landshamer (soprano), Marie-Claude Chappuis (mezzo-soprano), Maximilian Schmitt (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone) & Klaus Häger (bass)

St Thomas’s Boys Choir
Tölz Boys Choir

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Recorded 2 & 3 April 2009 in Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: DECCA 478 2194 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes



No orchestra has a greater pedigree in Bach-performance than the Leipzig Gewandhaus and, since becoming its Music Director, Riccardo Chailly has proved an enthusiastic advocate of the music of his illustrious predecessor. This release of “St Matthew Passion” was recorded at performances in Leipzig and features two choirs that are also have a rich Bach heritage: the boys’ choirs of Tölz and St Thomas’s Cathedral.

When I reviewed the London performance in the Barbican Hall, given a couple of days after those in Leipzig by identical forces save for the soprano soloist, I found it a mixed affair, often thrilling and sensitively performed, but ultimately lacking in soul. This album is similarly packed with good things, tempered by a frustrating lack of penetration in Chailly’s over-exacting direction; and the permanency of the recording sheds even colder, unflattering light on incongruous idiosyncrasies such as the grossly protracted bass note at the end of Part 1. This is a case of Chailly being too clever for his own good: in the score, the bass line is left exposed at the end of the orchestral ritornellos, but surely Bach didn’t intend it to stick out like a sore thumb in this way.

Firstly, however, praise where it is undoubtedly due. There are many moments to savour, such as the beautifully blended duet of Christina Landshamer and Marie-Claude Chappuis in ‘So ist mein Jesus gefangen’, taken at a nicely gliding tempo and punctuated by shockingly colossal chorus interjections. Thomas Quasthoff is the stand-out soloist, rich-toned and noble in the bass arias. He significantly raises the intensity of the performance, managing to convey poise and heartfelt passion in ‘Mache dich’ despite an unsympathetically chivvied accompaniment.

Chailly is at his best when he is lets the music flow without interference. His light, buoyant approach works particularly well in solo numbers such as the tenor’s ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ and the soprano’s ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ – the latter adorned with a heavenly choir of double-reed woodwind. The chorales, with gloriously lusty choral singing, are similarly unfussy and move with natural momentum, and there is terrific energy in the crowd scenes.

Elsewhere Chailly often tries too hard to manufacture feather-ruffling moments, as if he is embarrassed by the velvety Leipzig orchestral sound. Such self-consciousness is unnecessary: the suitably pared-down Gewandhaus ensemble plays with radiance and finesse, something as valid and effective as any period-instrument group, provided it is directed with stylistic sensitivity. The whole enterprise is almost fatally wounded from the outset by the catastrophically bright and breezy opening chorus. Yes, it is important to bring out Bach’s dancing sarabande rhythm and, yes, the music needs to flow – and there is no reason why it shouldn’t work at a relatively brisk tempo. But Chailly completely fails to impart crucial gravitas: there is no sense that we are about to witness the unfolding of a momentous, world-changing story steeped in tragedy. A few numbers later, the relentless march-like tempo set for the soprano aria ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’ strips it of grace – a fate also suffered, to a lesser degree, by an apologetic ‘Erbarme dich’.

Johannes Chum is unequal to the demanding Evangelist role, both vocally and dramatically; Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s unfocused and elderly-sounding bass does not offer a suitably magisterial Christus. The sweet voices of Landshamer and Chappuis are pleasant on the ear but, apart from Quasthoff, the only singers that consistently get to grips with the music in an engaging manner are the choristers.

With many strong recordings of this monumental work to choose from, it is impossible to give Chailly’s a firm endorsement. But it is certainly not a write-off, and deserves to be heard if only for its place in a Leipzig performance tradition which, however perverted along the way, stretches back to Bach himself. Listeners who can persevere with its deficiencies will find much to appreciate.

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