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J.S. Bach: St. Matthew/McCreesh

John Greene

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

Alert the media! Paul McCreesh has a “concept”: play it small, play it fast. That’s it. You don’t need to bother with the rationale discussed in excrutiating detail in the accompanying booklet. All you need to know is that he plays this entire work with one voice to a part in the choruses (nine soloists in all including the extra soprano line in the opening number), and that the result is a Passion that lacks just that quality: passion. This is the most expressively neutered, dramatically inert performance ever offered to the public.

Those used to the typically powerful opening chorus that begins the work will immediately be struck by its lack of force here. McCreesh argues that minimizing the choir allows for a greater clarity of the text and the accompanying instrumental textures, as if accompanying figures should sound on an equal footing with the sung text. It’s a concept as unmusical as it is unhistorical. (What’s next, a disc of Bach’s greatest continuo parts?) Just listen to these soloists swagger and bounce through music theoretically expressive of sorrow, and compare it to virtually any other extant performance (but especially to those reference recordings listed above). Many sequences suffer from McCreesh’s impotent-sounding “quartet substitute”, especially when Bach clearly uses the choir to evoke the voice of the crowd. Rarely have scenes such as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, the interrogation by Caiaphas and Pilate, and the delivery and flagellation sounded less urgent, dramatic, and awe inspiring.

The soloists, when actually acting as such, are generally fine, though given the competition they hardly stand among the best. For example, in comparison to the rich, authoritative performances of Thomas Quasthoff and Matthias Görne (Rilling) and Max Proebstl, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Kieth Engen (Richter), basses Peter Harvey and Stephan Loges are far less convincing, though the quick tempos don’t give them much help in the expression department. I also miss the depth of feeling and rich vocal tone that Agnes Giebel and Marga Höffgen (Jochum) and Irmgard Seefried and Antonia Fahberg (again Richter) bring to their performances. And all who have heard the force of nature that is Ernst Haefliger (Richter once more) in his prime need look no further for the quintessential Evangelist.

McCreesh’s swift tempos enable him to fit the work on two generously-filled (80-minute-plus) CDs. While this heightens the dance element so critical to Bach (McCreesh’s motive), this logic belongs with the “accompaniment is as important as the melody” justification for using one voice per part. It’s idiotic given the expressive intent of the work. It would be very amusing to hear Bach’s own reaction to anyone describing this work as a “dance piece”! The final Crucifixion sequence, which should be a carefully considered, solemn, broadly paced event here leaves you feeling that Christ spent a few zippy minutes at Golgotha, instead of hours–let alone days.

In sum, this is “historical” performance theory and practice run amok, utterly lacking in fundamental musical common sense. Indeed, maintaining acceptable quality in a performance such as this, where the same solosts sing everything over nearly three hours, is only possible in the artificial medium of recordings, where the singers have time to rest and stay in fresh voice. Such a stunt (for that is what it is) no doubt sounds atrocious in concert (McCreesh has indeed performed the work live in this fashion), as the exhausted singers limp to the finish line. And one thing we know that Bach did very well without was the role of conductor as we understand it today–and as McCreesh functions here. If he really cared about authenticity, he would have left the chorus in and absented himself from the proceedings. It would only have been an improvement.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Richter I (Archiv), Herreweghe I (HM)

J.S. BACH - St. Matthew Passion BWV 244

    Soloists: Deborah York (soprano)
    Julia Gooding (soprano)
    Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano)
    Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
    Mark Padmore (tenor)
    James Gilchrist (tenor)
    Peter Harvey (bass)
    Stephan Loges (bass)

  • Conductor: McCreesh, Paul
  • Orchestra: Gabrieli Players
  • Record Label: Archiv - 474 200-2
  • Medium: CD

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