Sometimes at Easter time, when I find that my daily Bible readings are working through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, I like to listen to Bach’s passions. This particular Easter, my Bible reading was through the Gospel of Matthew, so I decided this was as good an excuse as any to listen to the St Matthew Passion one more time.

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, this is an oratorio (a piece of sacred choral music) composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 18th century, originally designed to be heard in two halves, one before and one after the Good Friday church sermon.

It must have been a long service.

The fastest (and I mean really fast here) performance I’ve ever heard of this work goes for two and a half hours for both halves. Most are closer to the 3 1/4 hours mark. Imagine that with a sermon in between!

Maybe because of its length, it disappeared into obscurity for a long time. Then, in the 19th century, young Felix Mendelssohn discovered it and revived it. It has since gone on from strength to strength, growing in popularity, until it is today regarded as one of the greatest musical masterworks ever produced.

The basic idea is that it is an enhanced telling of the Easter story. The two chapters of Matthew that deal with Christ’s last hours and crucifixion are all set to music, with one singer (the Evangelist) singing the in-between narrative parts, and all the other Bible characters being sung by various other singers and any groups of people (the mob, the disciples, etc.) being sung by the choir. These sung dramatised Bible verses are then interspersed with three other forms of music:

Arias: There are four soloists who sing in this music, a soprano, alto, tenor and bass.  They sing solo arias that comment on the music.  Usually, the words are along the lines of expressing grief at what Jesus is going through, while also recognising that it is necessary for our sin.

Chorales:  These are hymn tunes of the day that are also interspersed throughout the story, and also comment on the action, in a similar way to the arias.  However, because of (what would have been) their recognisable tunes, it becomes music to express the thoughts of the listening congregation as a whole.  (In fact, I once saw one production on DVD where they had a separate choir just to sing the chorales, and they stuck them right up the back of the church behind the audience, almost as if it to demonstrate visually that they were singing for the congregation.)

Choruses:  Slightly different, there are three big choruses in this work, one at the beginning, one at the end of the first half, and another one at the end.  These are huge, complex pieces of choral singing and, to this day, are considered masterpieces of choral writing.  I find the opening one, especially, which is written for orchestra, a double choir echoing back and forth to each other (usually the main choir splits for this) and a children’s choir over the top (they only appear for this one number).  It is amazing stuff.

So, having laid all that groundwork, how does Klemperer’s recording stack up?  Well, for me, not quite, but it’s hard to put my finger on what it is.  First of all, it should be a fantastic recording.  The artists are all top-notch, in fact, it’s probably the best line-up of singers that have ever been put together for something like this – the always-glorious Elisabeth Schwarzkpof, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, with Peter Pears as the Evangelist and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Jesus. (If these names mean nothing to you, let me just say that these names are to the classical vocal world what names such as Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart are to the movie world.)

But Klemperer takes the work far too slow.  At 3 3/4 hours, this is without doubt, the longest St Matthew Passion on record.  Now, speed does not necessarily make this piece, and it is quite possible to take it too fast.  And certainly, going slower, should give you more time to be expressive with the story.  But I didn’t get that feeling here.  Compared with  my current favourite recording by Karl Richter (also recorded in that era), it comes through quite clearly, to my mind, that Klemperer views the work only as a piece of music, not as a choral masterpiece.   I can understand that he’s going to great pains to highlight Bach’s music, but it feels emotionless.

But when you look at the words of the text, you need that emotion to make it work.  I doubt very much that Bach sat there coldly composing the work without being moved by the subject he was dealing with.  So, all in all, I find this recording a bit of a disappointment, despite the calibre of the artists involved.

3 1/2 out of 5.

One thought on “CD Review: St Matthew Passion – Otto Klemperer

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