Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One)
Written by Uri Golomb [PhD Student, The Music Faculty, Cambridge University] (May 2002)
Below are reviews of two live performances of the St. Matthew Passion given in London in Easter 2001, and of another one given in Easter 2002. The 2002 performance, part of Paul McCreesh's second SMP tour, features the same forces with whom he will be making the first OVPP recording of the SMP.
Bach: St. Matthew Passion
Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Andrew Foster-Williams (Christus). Chorus 1 soloists: Philipa Hyde (soprano), Alexandra Gibson and Diana Moore (altos), Daniel Auchincloss (tenor), Jonathan Brown (bass). Chorus 2 Soloists: Carys Lane (soprano), Frances Bourne (alto), Andrew Carwood (tenor), Richard Burkhand (bass). The Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment / Sir Roger Norrington. London, Queen Elizabeth Hall; 11 April 2001.
Julia Gooding (soprano), Sarah Connolly (alto), Mark Padmore (Evangelist and tenor arias), Peter Harvey (Christus and bass arias). The Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh. London, Barbican Hall; Easter Sunday (April 15), 2001.
The Easter season is the occasion for myriad performances of the Bach Passions. The two performances I attended this year by no means represent the full variety of approaches on offer, which also include, for example, the traditional Bach Choir performances in English. Sir Roger Norrington’s performances represent what has become the mainstream ensemble for Bach performance: a mixed chamber choir accompanied by a chamber orchestra of period instruments. Paul McCreesh’s performance represents a more radical version, with each of the two choruses consisting of just four singers.
In fact, neither conductor completely ignored the recent research carried out by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott about Bach’s performing forces. The two main conclusions of their research are:
At the core of Bach’s vocal group were the four concertists (expanded to eight in the St. Matthew Passion). These concertists sang all the choruses and chorales, plus whatever arias and recitatives Bach allocated to their individual vocal ranges. The idea of the soloists who sing only their own arias, and stay silent during the choruses, is a more recent invention.
The concertists were occasionally doubled by extra singers – ripienists – but these were strictly optional, and Bach often chose to do without them even when they were available.  In short, he wrote his major vocal works with a quartet of soloists in mind. As McCreesh puts it, “there is no reason to believe that Bach [...] would have considered an augmentation of vocal forces as advantageous or even desirable. His music is quite clearly written – if we are bold enough to see it – to exploit the small, but immensely colourful ensemble with which he worked”. 
Both conductors agree with the historical validity of both claims (which are gradually gaining acceptance in the musicological community at large). Their practical conclusions, however, are different. Norrington happily realised conclusion 1: except for the Evangelist and Christus, all his soloists were drawn from the choir. They moved from their place among their fellow-choristers to a centre-stage platform to sing their respective arias, then moved back to their places once it was done. But he still retained a standard-sized double chorus. McCreesh, on the other hand, reverted to truly chamber-scaled forces. However, he explained that,
As Bach’s singers would not have had to contend with the joys of touring and singing passion-settings on consecutive days, we have made some small concessions to the practicalities of modern day vocal stamina; tonight a separate quartet of singers will sing the arias and recitatives.
This separate quartet did, however, join in for the chorales and parts of the final chorus.
On the whole, I found Norrington’s performance more satisfying. I should stress, however, that McCreesh’s reading was in many ways revelatory and inspiring, and made a thoroughly convincing case for his scaled-down approach.
Typically, Norrington’s performance featured meticulous attention to detail, as though he has lived with this work for a long time.  This attention extended from minute, often unconventional details in the phrasing of chorales  to a keen sense of timing in linking consecutive movements.
His approach to conducting per se was very relaxed – he sat down, mostly settling for gentle and under-stated movements; at times it seemed as if he took to heart Philippe Herreweghe’s maxim that “in Bach, if something is not possible without a conductor, it’s a sign that it’s not a good interpretation”. Yet his control over the forces was unmistakable, and he sometimes became a very active visual presence in moments where a conductor seems least necessary. A notable example for the latter was the aria “Aus Liebe”, written for one singer and three players, which he actually conducted with more vigour than some of the choral movements! Norrington’s approach to this aria was, however, quite unorthodox, with minute yet highly pronounced dynamic waves in both flute and soprano making the aria seem less magical and more anguished than usual (the somewhat harsh tone of soprano Philipa Hyde also contributed to this approach).
In fact, most of Norrington’s soloists had a hard-edged, crystalline vocal timbre. This description might be off-putting, but to my ears it was entirely appropriate, and did not prevent the Evangelist or the female soloists from producing moments of stunning beauty and expression. The lower soloists were somewhat weaker. Andrew Carwood (himself a noted director of Elizabethan choral music) was superb in his one aria (“Geduld”), but his fellow tenor Daniel Auchincloss was less convincing in his aria-with-chorus. There, Norrington conducted the recitative (“O Schmerz”) with rich detail and overall heaviness, and the aria (“Ich will be meinem Jesu wachen”) in a quick tempo. I found this entirely apt as far as the choral and orchestral parts were concerned, giving a sense of foreboding in the recitative, and urgency in the aria; but Auchincloss sounded a bit dull and (in the aria) rushed. The two bass aria soloists were also somewhat harsh and wooden, detracting from Norrington’s often flexible and moving shaping of the orchestral parts.
A similar problem affected Foster-Williams’ portrayal of Christus. He definitely belonged to the school that emphasises Jesus’ divinity rather than his humanity; there was almost no sense of vulnerability anywhere, and many passages were impressively imperious. He also revealed an aspect that I have not heard in any previous performance, to the best of my recollection: impetuous anger; his reaction to his disciples’ sleep was little short of vehement. At first, I found this arresting; but Foster-Williams lacked the sensitivity and nuance to make this truly convincing.
What impressed me most about the performance – especially in the second part – was the fantastic sense of continuity. At times, it seemed as if the Passion did not consist of individual “numbers” at all; instead, I felt that arias were reacting immediately to the preceding recitatives, that chorales flowed directly from the narrative – and indeed vice versa. This certainly made the performance more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the most successful of those parts were those that featured similar continuity within them. “Erbarme dich”, for instance, was incredibly fluent, with dynamic shadings giving it a constsense of urgency and direction without losing any of the lyricism; here, orchestra and soloists (violinist Margaret Faultless and alto Alexandra Gibson)  were perfectly attuned, combining forces to give a highly moving and revelatory performance. The aria “Können Thränen” was perhaps even more revelatory. Norrington’s tempo was quite fast, beginning with a harshness still reflecting the flagellation figures of the previous recitative (“Erbarm’es Gott”). However, during the “B” section, both singing and playing gradually softened, becoming less angry and more pained. When the “A” section returned, even though it was a verbatim da-capo, it was transformed – replacing the harshness of the recitative with the more veiled sorrow of the previous section (all this without a significant alteration of tempo: the transformation was accomplished through dynamics, articulation and ornamentation). 
On the whole, then, this was a highly intense performance. Certain moments in Part I struck me as somewhat rushed and shallow. However, the sensation of hearing the whole of Part II as one continuous piece, with each “number” dove-tailing into the next, was gripping and revelatory, and the few reservations I had there paled into insignificance in the face of this overall effect.
McCreesh’s performance started off on the wrong foot. His reading of the first chorus was disastrous in just about every respect: the tempo was incredibly fast, the phrasing dull and undifferentiated, the articulation and dynamics boringly smooth and uniform. Adding insult to injury, he decided – without a word of explanation in the program notes – to omit the “soprano-in-ripieno” from this chorus, and have the chorale melody “O Lamm Gottes” played non-descriptly by the two chamber organs. It’s true that this is what Bach did in the first performance, but he changed his mind – and I fully share the overwhelming preference for the later version. 
That said, the rest of the performance was highly musical. McCreesh’s conducting was, for the most part, not as original and revelatory as Norrington’s, but it was quite sensitive and moving in its more conventional way. His cast of singers was superb, which also helped. In fact, there wasn’t really a single weak link among his four aria soloists. The star was undoubtedly Mark Padmore – who was also the Evangelist in Norrington’s performance. In both concerts, he presented a forthright, sharp and dramatic reading of his role. He did not display as many nuances of timbre and phrasing as, for example, Peter Schreier. I suppose some listeners might find Schreier’s approach a bit mannered, while others would find Padmore’s somewhat bland; but personally, I find both approaches very convincing and moving, and Padmore’s sense of musical phrasing and dramatic pacing was highly gripping and involving. In McCreesh’s performance, there was the additional pleasure of hearing him sing the tenor arias.
Peter Harvey likewise played a double role, singing both Jesus and the bass arias. His Christus was, like Foster-Williams’, imperious and commanding, and he presented this approach in a more nuanced and convincing manner. Personally, however, I prefer the more vulnerably human approach, best represented by Peter Kooy’s recent reading of the role for Suzuki. I had absolutely no reservations, however, with Harvey’s reading of the bass arias. He is by now established as one of this generation’s finest Bach singers, and his lyrical, sensitive performances this Easter provide further evidence for this.
Julia Gooding has a full, mellifluous voice, which – coupled with her tendency towards broad, legato phrasing – is rather a-typical for a soprano specialising in Early Music. The alto Sara Connolly, on the other hand, displayed in some of her arias a harsher tone, reminiscent of the soloists in Norrington’s performance. Both of them, however, were highly effective, and they matched perfectly in a contemplative, pained performance of the duet “So ist mein Jesus”. Connolly was also very moving in “Erbarme dich” and “Können Thränen”; both arias were done more beautifully, and with less sense of direction and urgency, than in Norrington’s performance, but I found both approaches equally expressive and convincing. Much the same can be said of Gooding’s “Aus Liebe”.
Where this performance was most revelatory was in McCreesh’s often imaginative use of the scaled-down forces at his disposal. At some points, I did miss the volume and power of a standard choir – the crowd’s cry of “Barrabam”, for instance, was not nearly as blood-curdling as it is in the best choral readings. Elsewhere, however, the two quartets’ attempt to project their voices across the orchestra resulted in a strident vocal sound which was entirely appropriate. The scene at Golgaltha was surprisingly effective. I always knew that the two choruses were often in dialogue with each other in this scene (singing the same text, but not at the same time); but this was the first time that I could sense this – the fact that each chorus was “merely” a quartet meant that each of them had a somewhat different vocal timbre, creating a genuine sense of difference and dialogue. McCreesh further capitalised on this by asking the soloists to join the two choirs in the chorales. That way, there was a clear distinction between the solid, more conventionally-choral sound of the congregation’s prayer and the more individual, unique sound of the chorus when they took part in the action.
The two places where I personally was most convinced that the one-per-part approach offered irreplaceable insights were the tenor recitative-and-aria in part 1, and the final chorus. McCreesh’s reading of the former was highly dramatic. The recitative “O Schmerz” started with turbulent, anguished, almost aggressive playing from Orchestra 1, with Mark Padmore singing over them with a powerful, almost strident forte. His description of Jesus’ pain was answered by intensely quiet singing from Chorus (quartet) 2, accompanied piano by their orchestra.
The dramatic contrast was perfectly attuned with the text: it sounded as if the soloist was accusatory, urging the believers (represented by Chorus 2) to look at the depths of Jesus’ sufferings, and the Chorus responds by meekly accepting their guilt. This effect certainly could be achieved by a choir, but then there’s a danger that the choir will become – because of its more uniform, homogeneous colour – a background to the tenor’s singing. Here, the individuality of the chorus’s voices made it sounds like a genuine dialogue. In the aria, the contrast was much smaller, as the tenor becomes less pained and more lyrical, conversing with his fellow-believers in the chorus on more equal terms.
The final chorus was also highly moving. Here, when the two choruses sang in unison, he asked the four soloists to join them as well (as they did in the chorales). But when the two choruses were in dialogue, the soloists were quiet – which made the contrast between the “full congregation” and “dialogue” portions of this chorus even more pronounced. The effect of hearing the dialogue portions as conversations between two quartets was, for me, achingly vulnerable and beautiful – especially in the extended “Euer Grabe und Leichenstein”, sung mostly by Chorus 1 alone. I will not go so far as saying that it sounds better with soloists, but I did sense that his small ensemble gave it a unique, irreplaceable quality.
McCreesh is going to record the work soon, with this ensemble, for Deutsche Grammophon.  I can’t help feeling he’s rushing it a bit. His interpretation has, as I suggested, very many fine moments; but I can’t help feeling that it will improve substantially if he lives longer with the work. He has never done the St. Matthew Passion before, and I am not convinced that it’s such a good idea for him to record it after his first concert tour of this work. That said, I do hope his recording will encourage otheto experiment with these small-scaled forces. One-per-part Bach is gradually being accepted as a viable alternative, with more and more musicians producing highly convincing concerts and recordings. I certainly hope that McCreesh’s performance will prove, not an isolated curiosity, but a trailblazer – an impressive first word in a new tradition.
© Uri Golomb, 2001
PS: A second McCreesh performance
Chorus 1: Joanne Lunn (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (alto), Mark Padmore (Evangelist & tenor), Peter Harvey (Christus & bass); Chorus 2: Julia Gooding (soprano), Susan Bickley (alto), James Gilchrist (tenor), Stephan Loges (bass). The Gabrieli Consort & Players / Paul McCreesh. London, St. John’s Smith Square; March 20, 2002.
It is this team, rather than the team which performed the work last year, which will record the Passion with McCreesh (the recording is forthcoming from Archiv). Either my information at the time was inaccurate, or McCreesh and/or Archiv have decided to delay the project. In either case, I am glad of this change. Much as I was impressed with last year’s performance, I believe the new one has surpassed it in almost every way. In fact, it has been a long time since I was this moved by a performance of the work. This is partly due to the frisson of the live event. But in many respects, I believe the new performance is indeed superior to McCreesh’s previous effort – thanks in part to the new casting, and in part to a deepening of the conductor’s own interpretation.
One obvious difference is that, this time, McCreesh followed Bach’s instructions (in his parts) almost to the letter (accepting the Rifkin-Parrott argument that these parts were not shared): there were only eight singers,  who served both as soloists and as choral singers; indeed, they obviated the very distinction between “soloist” and “chorister”. This did not make much of a difference in terms of sonority (the ensemble of eight singers, singing at the front of the stage at St. John’s, sounded physically more powerful than the ensemble of twelve singing from the back of the stage at the Barbican Hall); but it might have contributed to the sense of continuity and involvement projected by all concerned. In a review of another performance of the Passion,  the soloists were praised for their modesty, for sounding as if they stepped out of the choir; there, of course, they actually had a choir to step out of. Here, the effect was the reverse: the singers sang their solos with all the bravura and charisma of soloists, and retained much of that charisma for the choruses as well (though, appropriately enough, they did give a more self-effacing interpretation to most of the chorales). Surprisingly and gratifyingly, the continuous, powerful singing did not seem to weary the singers (though I still presume that, in the recording sessions, they will be given more time to recover between movements).
To some extent, though, it felt as if the burden of the drama was thrust too exclusively on the singers. The orchestra always gave them admirable support, but were not always sufficiently in dialogue with them. The instrumental bass line, in particular, was too often in the background: McCreesh seems to have treated it, all too frequently, merely as the basis of the texture, forgetting that it had a melodic, figurative contribution to make. This was a symptom of a wider problem: in several cases, the soloists’ blend of lyricism and drama was supported by playing of great lyricism and refinement, but not sufficient drama and bite. This never gave the impression of a total mis-match, but it did turn some potentially great moments into “merely” excellent ones.
The team of singers was almost uniformly excellent. On the whole, the first chorus proved more consistent than the second. Mark Padmore’s interpretation of the Evangelist’s role seems to have reached new heights of drama and depth, and Peter Harvey’s view of Christus seems to have mollified and humanised – though he is still within the “Christ as God” school. They had fewer arias to sing this time round, but they were superb in what had been left for them.
Both soprano soloists were superb, and featured a broadly similar approach: sharp yet full voices, of a type which is not stereotypically associated with Early Music (though it was already introduced years ago – for example, by Harnoncourt’s and Gardiner’s employment of Barbara Bonney in some of their Bach recordings). I also greatly enjoyed Magdalena Kožená’s deep voice and her intensely moving rendition of most of the alto arias. I had some reservations, though, about the three remaining soloists in Chorus 2. Susan Bickley’s voice sounded harsh and somewhat unpleasant in her one aria (“Können Thränen”), though I enjoyed her sensitive and musical phrasing; and the voices of James Gilchrist and Stephan Loges sounded marginally pale and thin compared to their Chorus 1 counterparts (though they were pleasing enough in their own right).
The four Chorus 1 singers (as well as Julia Gooding, who excelled in all the soprano arias in last year’s performance) presented a broadly similar interpretative approach. They often shaped their long phrases more by dynamics than by articulation (this was probably more true of the female soloists), though they by no ignored means this latter, all-important aspect. Their range of dynamics was indeed quite wide, and they were not afraid to sing some phrases in a declamatory, impassioned manner; it was in those places, though, that the disparity between them and the orchestra’s gentler accompaniment was most clearly felt.
This powerful manner was carried into their rendition of the choruses, which means that, at least as I felt it, there was enough drama even in the turba choruses; such chilling moments as “Lass ihn kreuzig” did not lack venom or bite. The clash between the plaintive “So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen” (soprano and alto, chorus 1) and the more emphatic interjections “Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht” (chorus 2) was, if anything, more effective than usual: the fact that the other side also consisted of a quartet of soloists actually allowed them to be as fierce as necessary, without fearing that they will drown the lament. And when the two choruses joined together for “Sind Blitzen und Donner”, their unisono sound was quite close to that of a choir in the modern sense, and missing none of the latter’s terror and power. In my review of McCreesh’s previous performance above, I noted other moments where the use of single voices seemed particularly convincing; these moments were at least as affecting and moving in the new performance.
This performance has done much more than simply presents a convincing case for the one-per-part approach. Indeed, I somehow doubt whether the primary reason for McCreesh’s success – the employment of individualist singers, with strong voices and strong artistic personalities, capable of almost operatic delivery – is entirely credible historically. Its primary value was “simply” in presenting a highly compelling and moving interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion.
Ultimately, I am not convinced that the soloistic approach is musically superior to the standard choral approach – or vice versa. In all great music, and in Bach’s music in particular, both “historical” approaches (like the restoration of the harpsichord, or of Bach’s original, “soloistic” vocal ensemble) and “anachronistic” approaches (such as performing Bach on the piano – or with a chorus in the modern sense) offer powerful, irreplaceable insights. Right now, however, it’s probably the one-per-part approach that needs a stronger boost, since it still has much to overcome. McCreesh is now proving one of the most convincing advocates for this approach’s musical advantages; I hope his recording will receive the success it deserves, and that this success will also encourage others to explore this viable and exciting alternative.
© Uri Golomb, 2002
 Thus, when he performed Cantata BWV 21 in Leipzig, Bach definitely had ripienists at his disposal; but he chose to set them aside in the first chorus, and used them only in selected phrases in other choruses. All the rest was done by soloists alone.
 To the best of my understanding, there is, in fact, evidence that Bach was displeased with his forces – but I can accept the argument that it was the quality, not the quantity, that bothered him.
 This was the first time McCreesh has conducted the work. Norrington stated in a recent radio interview that this is the first time he’s done it in 26 years, though in his younger days he experienced the work in many guises – as player, singer and conductor. This was the first time he’s done the Passion with period instruments, and he also said it’s the first time he has heard it on period instruments. I allow myself to be a little sceptical with regards to this last statement.
 Like many recent conductors, Norrington was inconsistent in the treatment fermatas – sometimes treating them merely as breath-marks, at other times extending the notes beneath them. Whether or not this reflects Bach’s own practice – and musicologists are divided in interpreting the evidence – I, as a modern listener, find this approach effective. More controversial was Norrington’s decision to perform two of the chorales (“Bin ich gleich”, after “Erbarme dich”, and “Wen ich einmal”, after Christ’s death) a-capella; personally, I found this beautifully convincing in the latter chorale, but missed the warmth of the orchestral doubling in the former (perhaps because it contrasted too sharply with the sensuous richness of “Erbarme dich”).
 Two altos were listed as soloists from chorus 1. From their pictures, I think Gibson sang the arias, and Diana Moore only sang the alto part in the duet “Nun ist mein Jesu”; but perhaps I am mistaken, in which case it is Moore who deserves the credit for this stunning “Erbarme dich”.
 Throughout, singers were encouraged to ornament their da-capos, following what I understand was standard Baroque practice. This was done to mostly convincing effect.
 Bach’s “soprano in ripieno” were apparently an extra group of singers, who took part only in this chorus and in the final chorus of Part I, and otherwise kept quiet throughout (just like the boys’ choirs who often take their place in modern performances). McCreesh did have another solution available: using the two female soloists as soprano-in-ripieno. He actually did this in “O Mensch”. The decision to have soprano-in-ripieno in “O Mensch” (where they merely double the choral sopranos), but to omit it in the opening chorus (where they are absolutely indispensable), struck me as perverse – to put it mildly. Norrington, incidentally, asked four sopranos – two from each chorus – to move to the front of the stage to form the “soprano in ripieno” where needed.
 He has recently released the Magnificat (BWV 243) and Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), based on concerts he gave last Easter – also with small-scale forces. Critical reception was mixed, but mostly positive. I have not yet read press reviews on this St. Matthew, but the audience awarded McCreesh with tumultuous applause, replete with cheers and bravos.
 Bach had more than eight – the “bit” parts (Pilatus, Petrus, etc.) were sung by additional singers, but Bach explicitly stated that they should not sing anything else. So McCreesh’s decision to dispense with them does make sense. However, he still insisted on having the soprano-in-ripieno part performed by organ alone, and I still don’t find it convincing – even if it does represent Bach’s own first version. That said, the first chorus – though still a bit too fast – was more convincing this time round than it had been last year.
 Simon Heighes’ review of Masaaki Suzuki’s recording.
Copyright © This article was written by Uri Golomb [PhD Student, The Music Faculty, Cambridge University] (May 2002). You may freely distribute this work provided that it is unaltered and that no charge is made and this copyright notice is retained.
Contributed by Uri Golomb (May 3, 2002)
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Matthäus-Passion BWV 244: Details
Recordings: Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | BWV 244a | BWV 244b
Systemetic Discussions: Part 1: Mvts. 1-8 | Part 2: Mvts. 9-20 | Part 3: Mvts. 21-29 | Part 4: Mvts. 30-40 | Part 5: Mvts. 41-50 | Part 6: Mvts. 51-57 | Part 7: Mvts. 58-63b | Part 8: Mvts. 63c-68 | Part 9: Role of the Evangelist
Individual Recordings: BWV 244 - Bernstein | BWV 244 - Brüggen | BWV 244 – Cleobury | BWV 244 - Daus | BWV 244 - Fasolis | BWV 244 - Furtwängler | BWV 244 - Gardiner | BWV 244 - Gönnenwein | BWV 244 - Goodwin | BWV 244 – Guttenberg | BWV 244 - Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - Herreweghe | BWV 244 - Karajan | BWV 244 - Klemperer | BWV 244 - Kuijken | BWV 244 - Lehmann | BWV 244 - Leonhardt | BWV 244 - Leusink | BWV 244 - Max | BWV 244 - McCreesh | BWV 244 - Mengelberg | BWV 244 - Münchinger | BWV 244 - Norrington | BWV 244 - Oberfrank | BWV 244 - Ozawa | BWV 244 - Parrott | BWV 244 – Ramin | BWV 244 - Richter | BWV 244 – Rilling | BWV 244 - Scherchen | BWV 244 - Solti | BWV 244 - Spering | BWV 244 - Suzuki | BWV 244 - Veldhoven | BWV 244 – Walter | BWV 244 - Werner | BWV 244 - Wöldike
Articles: Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [by Teri Noel Towe] | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) [by Uri Golomb] | St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt [by Donald Satz] | The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [By Joshua Rifkin]
Uri Golomb: Short Biography | Articles: Text, music and performative interpretation in Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) | Sellars Staging | The St. John Passion on stage | András Schiff/Philharmonia Orchestra: Johann Sebastian Bach, 2000