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Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244

By Teri Noel Towe (1991)


This critical discography of the recordings of the Saint Matthew Passion, was completed late in 1989. No effort has been done to update it. No new recordings have been added, but if you are interested in an updated, thorough, and accurate (as possible) discography of the recordings of the Saint Matthew Passion, please look at: Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - Recordings. The article itself was left "as is", to stand or fall, on its own, as a historical document that reflects the state of affairs as Teri Noel Towe found them, just before the volcanic explosion of new allegedly "authentic" recordings -- purportedly "HIP" and employing period instruments -- that have overtaken and engulfed the listener, novice or educated, like a nuée ardente. The knowledgeable and up-to-date reader will spot the occasional "inaccuracy" that will serve as a cogent reminder that this essay, like its fellows in this section of my home pages, is a fly in amber.

Please remember that the copyright in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press, and, should you choose to honor Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from it, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final version of this discography is to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the discography appears at this website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

Teri Noel Towe (December 2001)



Bachs Own Performance Practice
The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Tradition
The Charismatic Iconoclasts
The Straube/Ramin Tradition
Other Recordings, 1950 - 1989
Alphabetical Discography


Bachs Own Performance Practice

The Saint Matthew Passion is the next to the last of the five Passions that Bach's sons recalled that their father had written, and it is the second of the three of which we have definite knowledge. The first of the two is the Saint John Passion, BWV 245, which is discussed elsewhere in this volume, and the third is the Saint Mark Passion BWV 247, written in 1731, for which only the text has been preserved. Very early on in the 19th century Bach Revival, however, scholars realized that the Saint Mark Passion contained many reworkings of music used elsewhere, and several conjectural recoveries of lost choruses and arias have been made. There is even a recording of a completely reconstructed setting!

The Saint Matthew Passion, on the other hand, contains little that is borrowed and almost certainly nothing that has been reworked from pre-existing music. In fact, as Joshua Rifkin has cogently argued, the SMP may have been composed for "essentially private reasons" and also was "the first vocal contribution to that remarkable, and evidently self-motivated, series of 'exemplary' works so strikingly characteristic of his output; and it stands, too, as the piece that marked his inward resignation from his job as Thomaskantor." [Joshua Rifkin: Annotations for concert performance of the Saint Matthew Passion, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, February 2, 1985, p. 2]

The first version of the Saint Matthew Passion was premired in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, on April 11, 1727. Originally, there was but one continuo line that accompanied the two four voice choirs rather than two independent ones, and the obligato instrument in the aria "Komm süsses Kreuz" and the preceding arioso [Nos. 65 and 66] was a lute rather than a viola da gamba. The First Part lacked the chorale "Ich will hier bei dir sterben" [No. 23], and, more importantly, ended not with the remarkable and monumental chorale fantasia "O Mensch, bewein' dein Sünde gross", which Bach originally composed to open the 1725 version of the Saint John Passion BWV 245, but with a simple four-voice chorale setting. This first version, which has survived only in a copy made by Bach's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol in the mid 1740s, has never been recorded.

Almost two years later, early in 1729, Bach used the work as a quarry for nine arias as well as final chorus of the funeral cantata he performed at the interment service for his one-time employer and friend, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. In 1736, Bach came back to the SMP and prepared a beautiful "fair copy" of the revised version that is familiar to audiences today and presented it, in the Thomaskirche, on Good Friday of that year.

The original performing materials for this "definitive" 1736 version have been preserved, and, as Joshua Rifkin has convincingly demonstrated, an open-minded examination of those parts and their implications yields some startling results. There are twelve vocal parts in all, one for each of twelve singers; no part was shared by more than one performer. There are eight "basic" parts, containing both the "choral" and "solo" music for the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass of each of the two "choruses". The remaining four parts are not doubling parts. They contain only "extra" music not assigned to the members of the two "choral" quartets. There is a part for the lone soprano who intones the chorale cantus firmus in the opening and concluding choruses of the First Part; there is another soprano part that contains only the music for the First Maid, the Second Maid, and Pilate's Wife. Lastly, there are two bass parts; one contains the music for Judas and the First Priest, and the other contains the music for Peter, The High Priest, the Second Priest, and Pilate. None of these "subsidiary" parts contains any of the music for any of the choruses or chorales. Furthermore, the parts for the Tenor and the Bass of Chorus One are marked "Evangelist" and "Jesus" respectively, but they are devoid of any "cues" for any doubling singers in the "choral" numbers. The conclusion is as inescapable as it is obvious. Bach performed the SMP with a total of eight singers in the double choruses!

The instrumental complement was similarly intimate: a solo violin in each of the two bands, one of which accompanies Chorus One and the other of which accompanies Chorus Two, two ripieno first violins, two second violins, one viola, one cello, a violone, and - in 1736, at least - two continuo organs. None of the winds was doubled.

That Bach could successfully have brought off a work as lengthy, as demanding, and as monumental as the SMP with such intimate forces seems impossible to us nowadays, particularly since we know how vociferously he complained about the inadequacies of the performing forces available to him. But the SMP is remarkably carefully balanced work. The allocation of ariosos and arias between the members of the two choruses assures that each concertist, as he was called, got ample time to rest; furthermore, the two Parts were separated by the preaching of the Good Friday sermon, an especially long winded affair lasting some two hours or so. The performers, therefore, had an adequate chance to recover their stamina before they had to come back to sing and play the Second Part.

The two instrumental and vocal choruses were split between the two organ lofts, nearly 100 feet apart, but the then favorable acoustics of the Thomaskirche made it possible to keep the two ensembles together. By the time Bach revived the work in the early 1740s, however, the organ had been removed from the second loft, and Bach was forced to substitute a harpsichord for the continuo of Chorus Two. It is something of an irony, then, that, when harpsichord and organ are used together in "modern" performances of the SMP, the harpsichord almost always accompanies the Evangelist, who is member of Chorus One. To compensate for the disappearance of this second organ, Bach added a second ripieno soprano to the opening and concluding choruses of Part One. In all other respects, the vocal parts that Bach used in the early 1740s (almost certainly 1741) are the same ones that he used in 1736, and there is no evidence to support the contention that Bach used additional singers for the "choral" numbers in this, most likely the last, performance of the SMP that he presented.

The other significant change that Bach made in the score of the Saint Matthew Passion for the 1741 revival is the addition of the chordal part for the viola da gamba in the arioso "Mein Jesus schweigt" [No. 40]; the viola da gamba also plays the obligato in the following aria "Geduld, Geduld". This alternate version is occasionally, though infrequently, used; unless otherwise specifically mentioned, the reader may assume that the 1736 versions of these numbers have been followed in the recordings discussed in this essay.

Needless to say, there has so far not been a commercial recording of the SMP reflecting Rifkin's "radical" but as yet unrefuted analysis of the evidence, but those of us who had the good fortune to be in the audience at the University of North Carolina in 1985, for the concert performance of the 1736 version given by Joshua Rifkin, The Bach Ensemble, and a first rate cast of the best early music singers in America, including Ann Monoyios and William Sharp among others, vividly recall that it was though we were hearing this familiar and beloved masterpiece for the first time. The searing clarity, the poignancy, the emotional intensity, and the relentless, heart rending drama of both score and text were conveyed with a power and sincerity surpassed by no other approach to this music and equalled by few. It is fortuitous for all who are interested in how Bach heard his music performed that this incredible performance was recorded for later broadcast on North Carolina Public Radio and therefore quietly circulates privately among the cognoscenti [53].

Of all the recorded performances of the SMP, whether with period instruments or modern ones, whether "authentic" or "Romantic", there are but two in which the distinction that Bach draws between the singers of Chorus One and the singers of Chorus Two is followed at all consistently through the "solos" and the "choruses". Both of those recordings are conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

In the earlier of the two Nikolaus Harnoncourt sets, the first period instrument Saint Matthew Passion [39], the division of the solos between members of the two Choruses is adhered to almost exactly; apart from a substitute Alto soloist in two numbers, the only deviations are Harnoncourt's allocation of the part of Jesus and bass arias of Chorus One to separate singers and his apparent assignment of the subsidiary rles to the eight "soloists.

A modern double chorus, some 40 strong, is used, of course, but it is made up of boys' and men's voices. The soprano solos are sung by two exemplary but anonymous soloists from the Wiener Sängerknaben, but their birdlike voices, clear and pure though they are, are simply not mature enough, emotionally or physically, for this music. Voices broke much later in Bach's day than they do now, and consequently the sound he and his contemporaries heard was fuller than any one might expect to hear from a prepubescent voice today. The use of a woman's voice of an appropriately boyish character is an inevitable compromise that must be made nowadays by those who seek to perform this music in an "authentic" manner.

The adult soloists are all excellent. Particularly noteworthy are Paul Esswood and James Bowman, who bring emotional commitment, technical security, and distinctive timbre to the alto music. Kurt Equiluz is one of the great interpreters of the Evangelist's rle. He sings the narration in a dramatic, but straight-forward and conversational way; he "reads" the part, if you will, in the manner of a great actor. Karl Ridderbusch is an excellent Jesus; he has a dark but natural voice, and his interpretation is suffused by a unique sense of vulnerability and resignation as to inevitability of Christ's crucifixion.

The overall tactus is brisk. There is some stressing of strong beats, but this quirk of Harnoncourt's, which later developed into a most disquieting mannerism, is not pronounced, and here serves only to heighten the dance-like qualities that pervade so much of the music in the SMP. Although Harnoncourt was responsible for shaping the overall interpretation, David Willcocks, then the Director of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, evidently conducted the choruses and chorales. As one might expect from a virtuoso gambist like Harnoncourt, the 1741 forms of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used.

The bloom and freshness of this extraordinary recording, which startled and opened the eyes and ears of many of us when it first appeared in 1970, has not faded. It is still unsurpassed among the period instrument recordings of the SMP, and it is has only a handful of equals overall.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt's second SMP [52] was recorded in concert at the Concertgebouw on March 31, 1985, at the tenth annual performance he had given with the Concertgebouw; all of the artists waived their royalties for this set, which is being sold to benefit the fund to restore the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam's magnificent and venerable concert hall. For a variety of reasons, the interpretation unfortunately is nowhere near as successful as Harnoncourt's first. For one thing, he uses a modern orchestra and chorus whom he has carefully schooled in the replication of period timbres; they sound "modern" nonetheless. The natural but curious clarity and the innate but bizarre incisiveness of period instruments just cannot be duplicated by modern ones.

Matters are not helped by a complement of soloists who are accustomed to singing the "modern" way. Harnoncourt, however, once again comes close to replicating Bach's allocation of the "solos" among eight singers, but this time, Kurt Equiluz sings only the Evangelist's rle, again with distinctive character, pure sound, and emotional clout. The tenor arias are overinterpreted by a rather wobbly Neil Rosenshein. Once again, all the subsidiary rôles for which Bach provided parts for three additional singers are divided among the eight soloists. The part of Jesus is not sung by the Bass in Chorus One, the rather dry and wooly Ruud van der Meer who also sings Peter, Pilate, the High Priest, in addition to Judas, and, apparently, the First Priest. Anton Scharinger, who evidently sings only the Second Priest in addition to the Arias assigned to the Bass in Chorus Two, has a cleaner and more pleasing tone. Robert Holl is a fuzzy and posturing Jesus. The female soloists are fine in the main. The mixed chorus is medium sized, and is augmented in the opening and closing choruses of Part One by a boys' choir which sings the chorale cantus firmuses.

Surprisingly, there so far have only been two other period instrument recordings of the SMP released since Harnoncourt's appeared two decades ago. (A fourth, under the direction of Ton Koopman, is scheduled for release in 1990.) Philippe Herreweghe's interpretation [51] is less extroverted, less brilliant than Harnoncourt's, and it does not emphasize the dance-like character of many of the movements to anywhere near the same degree; instead Herreweghe's SMP is more reverent, more relaxed, and, paradoxically, more relentless in character. It is imbued with a pervasive sense of gentleness, awe, and faith that sets it apart from all the other recordings. The two ensemblthat make up Choruses One and Two are both mixed choirs; the soprano soloist is a woman; the alto a man. (Whether Bach used boys or men for his altos has been the subject of some dispute; surely some of the more mature students at the Thomasschule were altos, and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel was apparently a gifted falsettist.) The 1741 versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used.

René Jacobs's distinctive, plangent voice is perfectly suited to the alto solos; his exquisite account of "Erbarme Dich, mein Gott" is among the most poignant on records. Like Ulrik Cold, the clear voiced, straight forward Jesus, Howard Crook treats the Evangelist's rle in a more conversational manner than most, and his quiet and natural unfolding of the narrative comports perfectly with Herreweghe's contemplative view of the score. In sum, this account of the SMP is every bit as satisfying Harnoncourt's first one, but in a different way; the two sets complement each other neatly.

John Eliot Gardiner's recording [56], which appeared in November, 1989, is the most recent period instrument account of the SMP. Although there are eight soloists, the division of responsibilities among them does not always follow Bach's allocation of the solos between Chorus One and Chorus Two; the assignment of the ariosos and arias among the various singers apparently was based primarily on vocal range and timbre. Anthony Rolfe Johnson is disappointing as the Evangelist; his voice is tattered and tender at the top, often painfully so, and his interpretation is quite mannered. Especially annoying is the sudden halving of the tactus of the narrative during the Crucifixion recitatives. Andreas Schmidt is fine, straightforward Jesus. Of the remaining soloists, all of whom are first rate, the sensitive and clear-voiced Ann Monoyios is particularly noteworthy. The relatively large mixed choirs and the mixed voice children's chorus that intones the cantus firmusin the opening and concluding choruses of Part One all sing with assuredness and sensitivity.

Gardiner's approach to the Saint Matthew Passion is a traditional, classical one. It is tempting to describe his interpretation as "Mozartian" in feeling, but it is perhaps most accurate to say that Gardiner's interpretation is early nineteenth century in character. This fine reading evinces many of the characteristics of the conservative, fleet, and direct approach taken by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his followers.


The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Tradition

The 1741 performance of the Saint Matthew Passion appears to be the last that Bach himself presented. It was also the last performance given for nearly 90 years. The vagaries of the preservation -- and loss -- of many of Bach's scores and performing materials are too well known to warrant discussion here, but, by the 1820s, his music was well on its way to total rediscovery. Of course, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's revival of the Saint Matthew Passion was, to use a modern term, the media event that irreversibly expanded Bach's audience to the world at large. Still, it is a common misconception that the performance that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy gave with the Singakademie in Berlin on March 11, 1829, was complete and uncut. It was no such thing. Four ariosos, ten arias, six chorales, and substantial portions of seven of the Evangelist's recitatives were excised, to reduce the length of the work by more than an hour.

Among the numbers cut were such famous solos as "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" and "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein". Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was also responsible for the custom of singing "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden" a capella, a practice still frequently encountered today, and of strengthening Bach's economical instrumentation of the "Earthquake" recitatives, another practice that lingered well into this century; such shenanigans can be heard in the notorious Furtwngler concert recording, for instance. In addition, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was compelled to adjust the instrumentation by substituting currently available instruments for those that had become "obsolete" since Bach's day; clarinets, for instance, replaced oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia.

Neither the version that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy premired in Berlin in 1829 nor the somewhat less severely cut version that he put on in Leipzig a dozen years later has ever been recorded or, for that matter, given a "modern" performance. The performing materials have been preserved; they are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. A recording of either one of these arrangements, like a recording of the 1727 version of the SMP, would be a valuable addition to the discography of this passion oratorio.

Whatever Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's motives may have been, his abbreviation of the SMP sanctioned the practice for all and sundry, and, as others performed it throughout Germany, then England, and ultimately the world at large, the Saint Matthew Passion made its "modern" début in a truncated form. It was not until 1912 that an audience finally heard this masterpiece complete and uncut. {Thanks to the kindness of the distinguished Bavarian musicologist and critic Dr. Klaus-Peter Richter, I subsequently learned that the first such complete and uncut performance had, in fact, taken place five years earlier, in 1907, in Karlsruhe, under the direction of Felix Mottl.} The conductor was Siegfried Ochs, the founder and director of the Berlin Philharmonic Choir. Ironically, notwithstanding his interest in Bach in particular and early music in general, Ochs was apparently a conservative interpreter. Through the violinist Joseph Joachim, he stood in a direct line of pedagogical descent from Mendelssohn-Bartholdy himself, and his brisk urgent tempos and long legato phrases have their origins in the essentially late Classical style in which both Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his colleagues in Berlin and Leipzig performed their own music and that of their antecedents. It comes, therefore, as a shock for those who hear it for the first time to discover that Ochs's recording of the opening chorus of the SMP [M-1] is the exact opposite of the ponderous and turgid interpretations that the well-known Mengelberg performance had previously misled them to assume to have been the norm. Split over two sides of a 12" 78 with plenty of room to spare on the second side, "Kömmt, ihr Töchter" last 5 minutes and 26 seconds, less than half the time it takes Mengelberg to make his stately and effusive progress through the same music. {Those who are interested in exploring in further detail the issue of what the prevailing Bach performance style of the 19th century actually was may wish to read Present-Day Misconceptions About Bach Performance Practice in the 19th Century -- The Evidence of the Recordings.}

Like Bach himself, and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, too, evidently, Ochs liked his tempos fast. One cannot help but wonder, under the circumstances, if Hermann Scherchen's view of the SMP [15] was not strongly influenced by Ochs's. Scherchen was a native of Berlin and received his early training there. His opening chorus is almost as fast as Ochs's, and his entire interpretation is notable for its exceedingly fleet pacing. Like Ochs, too, Scherchen favors the clean cut and the straight forward; his phrases are long and legato. Some of the contemplative movements may seem flippant at first, but the "turbae" choruses are especially dramatic at Scherchen's tempos; never have the crowd's fury and the priests' haof Christ been more vividly conveyed to the listener.

The distinctive timbre of Hugues Cuenod's voice makes his Evangelist seem almost unearthly, and, despite the mildly dry character of his voice, Heinz Rehfuss makes Jesus seem both warm and vulnerable. The other soloists run from the acceptable to the good, but it is worth noting that Kurt Equiluz, one of the great Evangelists of our time, made his début as a soloist in SMP recordings as the Second Witness in the Scherchen set.

If Ochs's tempos represented something of an extreme, what represented the norm among traditional, classic 19th century style performances of the SMP in Germany? Who best represented the conservative Mendelssohnian Leipzig-Berlin approach to the work? Gerhard Herz, the distinguished Bach scholar, recalls the conducting of Hans Weißbach as being the paradigm [Personal conversation, Hempstead, New York, October 25, 1985]. As it happens, Weißbach was also a graduate of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, of which Joachim was the Director and where Ochs also had studied.

Fortuitously, a concert performance of the SMP under Weißbach's leadership has survived [2]. Recorded in the Altes Gewandhaus on April 19, 1935, his interpretation is characterized by the same classical long legato phrases heard in Ochs's recording of the opening chorus, but the overall tactus, while brisk, is not as fast as those adopted by Ochs or by Scherchen. Another Mendelssohn-Bartholdyism in evidence is the beefed up instrumentation of the "Earthquake" recitative. Koloman von Pataky is a thrilling Evangelist and tenor soloist: his positively ecstatic "Ich will bei meinem Jesum wachen" is challenged only by the passionate full voiced Walter Widdop's 1930 English language version [M-4]. Margarethe Klose has a rather tight vibrato, but it is compensated for by a solid chest tone and an emotionally searing "Erbarme Dich, mien Gott". Rather detached emotionally at first, Paul Schöffler, the Jesus, warms up as the performance progresses. Kurt Böhme's big, dark, stirring voice brings a special power to the bass arias, or at least those that are left in this cut performance. Also worthy of mention is Weißbach's particularly plastic and affecting account of the final chorus.

The conservative Mendelssohnian approach to the Saint Matthew Passion centered in Leipzig and Berlin survives to the present, despite the many subsequent and varying developments in Bach performance practice, including the Straube/Ramin style forged in Leipzig in the 1920s and 1930s. Several performances in this classic style have made their way to records since Ochs's and Weißbach's work was documented.

The earliest among them is an abridged performance of the SMP recorded in Berlin in the mid 1930s by the Bruno Kittel Choir under the direction of its founder, Bruno Kittel [3], Ochs's successor as the German capital's foremost choral conductor. Like Ochs and Weißbach, Kittel preferred brisk tempos in the main, long legato phrases, and straight forward expression; there is no funny business here. Kittel is blessed by a particularly well balanced group of soloists, all of whom have bright, firmly centered voices. Incidentally, the two separately released discs of excerpts [M-6] are not taken from the complete set and feature different soloists. The alto, the redoubtable Emmi Leisner, also made a splendid single disc of "Erbarme Dich, mein Gott" [M-7]. This especially poignant aria -- Bach certainly wrote none better -- appears to have been the most frequently recorded single excerpt from the SMP during the 78 RPM era.

Among the most worthy such accounts are the dark voiced Sigrid Onegin's acoustic disc [M-9], the Dutch contralto Maartje Offers's searing reading with the much under appreciated Isolde Menges playing the violin obligato [M-10], and, from the post World War Two era, the singular interpretation of Marian Anderson [M-13]. Although it is not of 78 RPM origin, one of the most transcendent accounts of this heavenly aria was recorded by the mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel at the 1951 Perpignan Festival, with Pablo Casals conducting [M-16].

More recent recordings of the SMP in the classic, Mendelssohnian manner include Fritz Lehmann's 1949 concert performance, the first uncut recording in German [9]. The two previous German commercial "complete" recordings of the SMP -- the Kittel and the Günther Ramin [6] -- were abridged, as is Weisbach's performance. Not identical but often congruent, these cuts are not the same as those made by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy; they are, however, indicative of the cuts that were the standard throughout Germany as early as the last quarter of the 19th century, and, in the case of the Ramin recording, are the cuts that had customarily been made in performances given by the Thomanerchor in Bach's "own" Thomaskirche in Leipzig since the early years of the 20th century at least. That the universal and "standard" cuts of the type found in the Kittel and Ramin [6] recordings happen to expunge most, if not all, of the specific references to the Jews is a now unfortunate and distasteful coincidence. And, of course, it thus more than mildly ironic that it was left to American soloists, American instrumentalists, and American choristers, many of whom were refugees from the Nazis, to record the first complete and uncut SMP in English in Boston on Good Friday, March 26, 1937, under the baton of a Soviet emigré, Serge Koussevitzky [4].

Recorded at a concert in a divided and devastated Berlin, the Lehmann performance is among the greatest performances of the Saint Matthew Passion on disc. His potent reading is squarely in the classic, Mendelssohnian tradition -- straightforward and relatively brisk overall, with long, legato phrases and rhythmic robustness. Helmut Krebs was one of the great interpreters of the tenor rle; his distinctive, pure, and mildly nasal voice lends a particularly patrician quality to the Evangelist's narrative, and he sings the tenor arias with nobility and commitment. The young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, then at the dawn of his career, is a magnificent, virile Jesus; he may have refined and polished his interpretation over the years, but he never again sang the part with such youthful freshness and naturalness. The other three soloists all possess solid, focussed round voices.

It is frustrating, therefore, to have to report that the recording is marred by occasional snippets of missing music; a few measures, for example, are missing from the opening ritornello of "Ich will bei meinem Jesum wachen". What the cause of these elisions was is not clear, and a set of the Discophile Française 78s was not available for consultation. All is not lost, however, for the so-called Joseph Balzer performance on the Royale label [16] is really the Lehmann [9], apparently taken off the air from the broadcast of the same performance that was recorded for commercial release. The "Balzer" is, apparently, absolutely complete and not marred by these unexplained "cuts". The Gramophone set (No relation to HMV!) featuring "The Cathedral Choir and Symphony Orchestra" is identical to the "Balzer" [16].

Choruses and chorales from the SMP conducted by Karl Forster [M-21], who was for many years the choir director at St. Hedwig's Cathedral, are also very Mendelssohnian in feeling: urgent and briskly paced, with long legato phrases. One wonders how the Passion in its entirety sounded under Frster's capable leadership.

Kurt Thomas, who studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Karl Straube before Straube became interested in issues of authentic performance practice, made a recording of the SMP in the 1950s that is very much in the conservative, Mendelssohnian mold [13]. His reading is cool and straight forward; frankly, it is the one truly inspired recording that Thomas made. It also is apparently the earliest to make use of the 1741 versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld". A relatively small chorus and orchestra are employed, and the soloists range from adequate to fine. As Jesus, Horst Günter is solid and direct, and Helmut Kretschmar's fine account of the Evangelist and the tenor solos is marred by his tendency to shriek at the top. At a relatively early point in her distinguished career, Agnes Giebel's voice is fresh, clear, and pure.

Heinz Markus Göttsche's recording [36] is much like Thomas's; it is direct and without pretension, a well sung, high quality provincial performance in the conservative Mendelssohnian tradition; it also features the gamba versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld". The recording, however, leaves something to be desired: The soloists are right in the listeners' laps, but the chorus is in the next block. Of the reliable soloists, Ortrun Wenkel stands out; hers is a big, tubby contralto voice with a potent, centered tone.

Much more impressive in every respect, however, is the Erhard Mauersberger set, made in Dresden early in 1970 [40]. It is the quintessential recorded performance in the conservative Mendelssohn-Bartholdy style and one of the best accounts of the SMP overall. Born in 1889, Mauersberger had been a student at the Leipzig Conservatory when Carl Reinecke, who had known Mendelssohn-Bartholdy personally, was still an active member of the faculty. The performance is a splendid example of the Mendelssohnian style at its best; from the first note to the last, it has a wonderful lilt. The phrasing is legato and long, and the tactus relatively brisk. Mauersberger possessed an excellent sense of drama, and the performance is perfectly paced, with one number leading into the next, powerfully but never melodramatically.

The two boys' choirs -- the Thomanerchor Leipzig, which was prepared by the then Thomascantor, Rudolf Mauersberger's younger brother Erhard, and Rudolf's own Dresdner Kreuzchor -- sing with precision and with warmth. The soloists are at one with their octogenarian conductor. A youthful Peter Schreier, himself an alumnus of the Kreuzchor, sings the Evangelist's rôle with brilliance, conviction, and empathy; Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, who was to succeed Erhard Mauersberger as Thomascantor, has a pure light voice, but it is a little tender at the top. Theo Adam is a wonderfully dignified and forthright Jesus, but his voice is beginning to show the first signs of wear. The bass arias are sung by Günter Leib, whose light voice is precisely focussed and pure of tone.

The most recent recording of the SMP in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition, and the most colorful in the genre, is, surprisingly, Sir Georg Solti Georg Solti's [55]. A native of Hungary, he grew up steeped in central European traditions of Bach performance practice and had had four decades of experience conducting the SMP when he undertook to record it. Whether he did so consciously or not, Sir Georg has given us another quintessential modern recording of a mid-19th century central German style reading of the score. The tempos tend to be brisk, the approach straightforward; there is no simpering or lingering here. In short, this is another performance in the best, conservative 19th century classic Leipzig/Berlin manner, and, because both the Lehmann and the Mauersberger have been out of the catalogue for many years, is more readily available to those who are interested in this approach to the SMP. {Both the Lehmann and the Mauersberger have been reissued on CD in recent years.}

The relatively small orchestra, a chorus some 80 voices strong, and the battery of top flight soloists acquit themselves nobly, supporting Solti's interpretive goals to the fullest. Hans Peter Blochwitz, who sang the tenor arias in Herreweghe's period instrument recording, here proves to be a distinguished Evangelist, and Kiri Te Kanawa is equally impressive in the soprano solos. Organ continuo is used throughout, and the gamba versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are employed.

Sir Georg, however, is not the first "big name" conductor to record a great Saint Matthew Passion of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy type. That honor goes to Otto Klemperer, whose 1963 recording is justly revered [26]. The tempos and overall tactus, admittedly, are slow, which creates an intensity that heightens the inevitability of the course of the story almost unbearably, but there is neither simpering nor lingering. Furthermore, despite the deliberate pacing, the narrative recitatives never sound stodgy or didactic; they have a suitably conversational tone about them. The phrases are long and smooth, the pacing paradoxically urgent and relentless.

No conductor has been blessed by a more stellar constellation of soloists for a recording of the Saint Matthew Passion, and all are in top form. In fact, it has to be noted that some of the tiniest rôles are gladly taken by artists either at the peak of (Geraint Evans - the Second Priest) or on the verge of (Janet Baker - the Second Maid) of major international careers. Klemperer, incidentally, opted for the 1741 gamba versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld".


The Charismatic Iconoclasts

Still, Otto Klemperer and Sir Georg Solti are the exceptions not the rule. Charismatic conductors of international stature are rarely musical conservatives either consciously or unconsciously intent on preserving established performance traditions, no matter how important they may be. Powerful creative or recreative personalities are usually egocentrics who seek to go their own ways and to create styles of their own. The performance traditions associated with the Saint Matthew Passion are not immune from this reality. After all, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had no knowledge of Bach's performance practice and no real interest in it. For him the Saint Matthew Passion was contemporary music to be played in a contemporary fashion. Most of the great charismatic conductors of the 20th century have viewed the score in the same way, and in so doing, without wanton intent, have done not only much to dilute the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition but also to foster in the minds of most listeners a fundamental misconception 19th century Bach performance practice, which was a lot more straight forward and urgent than most would believe on the basis of the few "old" recordings they know, none of which is representative of true 19th century style.

As luck would have it, the first complete recording of the Saint Matthew Passion was made by just such a charismatic conductor, one who had, furthermore, no knowledge of the Mendelssohnian traditions. That man was Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian born double bass virtuoso who conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 25 years. His SMP is a free wheeling affair to say the least, eccentric and Romantic in an almost Tschaikowskyian sense. He may have had no more knowledge of "correct" Bach performance practice than the Gilbertian novice in a nunnery, but he had the sense to perform the work in its entirety. He engaged the services of the distinguished German emigr harpsichordist Ernst Victor Wolff to accompany the Evangelist and fill in the figured bass in many of the solos; he also hired the pioneer gambist Alfred Zighera to play the obligato in "Komm, süsses Kreuz" and the preceding arioso. But Koussevitzky couldn't stomach the notion of "Geduld, Geduld" with a simple continuo accompaniment; The harmonies are realized in a fully written out, through composed setting for full string orchestra.

While all are more than adequate, none of the soloists other than Keith Falkner, however, is memorable, and Koussevitzky's recording is now valuable primarily as an extremely rare collector's item. But one singer who received no credit for his participation in this gargantuan undertaking went on to fame and fortune. He was a Harvard undergraduate and a member of the Glee Club at the time. He became a proteg of Koussevitzky's and a charismatic "big name" conductor in his own right. His name is Leonard Bernstein, and he, too, has recorded the SMP in English [28].

Bernstein's, however, is a severely abridged, extroverted, sharp edged, operatic account that ultimately is scuttled by inadequate soloists - a querulous, bleaty Evangelist, a stentorian Jesus, a solid clear voiced soprano who approaches every note above the staff with fear and trepidation. Only the molten voiced mezzo-soprano Betty Allen is truly enjoyable to hear, and one wishes that Charles Bressler, though not in his best form, has sung the Evangelist's narrative in addition to the two tenor solos that did not end up on the cutting room floor.

A performance of Part One by the New York Philharmonic under the direction Bruno Walter, Bernstein's other great mentor, that was broadcast on April 18, 1943, has survived in dull and rather muddy sound, and it circulated semi-privately in the early 1970s [7]. (Part Two, which aired the following week, also is rumored to exist in the Philharmonic's archives, but it has not as yet surfaced.) Sung in the Henry S. Drinker translation, the performance is rather Mahlerian in tone, but it is not as extreme as Koussevitzky's or Mengelberg's. Walter makes no cuts, per se, but he does find it convenient to playing only the reprise of the opening ritornellos of the four da capo arias in Part One.

Perhaps the greatest culprit, if you will, among the "big name" conductors is Willem Mengelberg, the brilliant and eccentric conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, whose abridged Palm Sunday, 1939, concert performance of the SMP was one of the first to be released on long playing records [5]. An effusive, and "Romantic" performance to say the least, Mengelberg's intensely personal view of the SMP is replete with grand ritards, neo-Mahlerian plasticity, rubati within rubati and phrases within phrases, and a fastidious attention to details of dynamics within phrases. The eccentricities, great and small, are legion. A description of a tiny one will suffice: Nearly every chord in the recitatives is broken, strummed on the harpsichord as though it were a lute or a guitar. Needless to say a large chorus and orchestra are used.

The soloists are uneven. Louis van Tulder sounds pinched and pressed in the tenor arias, and Willem Ravelli, the Jesus, has a rather tight wobble, but his is a characterization of great reserve, resignation, and sensitivity. Karl Erb was in better voice in the Ramin "studio" recording made two years later, but he was indisputably one of the premier Evangelists of all time, and more of the rle can be heard here. Jo Vincent had a special soprano voice, radiant and burnished, pure and very tightly focussed.

Piet van Egmond, who played organ continuo in the Mengelberg performance, recorded an uncut SMP in the early 1950s [18]. Although he is nowhere near as effusive or idiosyncratic, Egmond was obviously heavily influenced by Mengelberg. Once again, a large chorus and orchestra are called into play. The singing, from chorus and soloists alike, is quite raw.

The large shadow that Mengelberg's approach to the SMP cast in the Netherlands can be felt in Anthon van der Horst's recording, which was made in concert in the Grote Kerk in Naarden in 1957 [20]. The tactus is slow in this performance, in which the gamba versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are employed. Dr. van der Horst was inclined to the scholarly, and he pays more than casual attention to the principles of "correct" performance practice. Mengelberg's much tempered influence can nonetheless still be felt in the careful highlighting of inner voices in choruses and arias alike. The soloists are uneven. Best is Tom Brand, a pure voiced Evangelist with security and power at the top end of his register.

In its way, Wilhelm Furtwängler's concert performance of April 14, 1954 [17], is as eccentric and iconoclastic as Mengelberg's. That this recreative genius is beholden to no tradition, no matter how venerable and no matter how worthy, becomes apparent in the opening chorus. He inserts momentum breaking caesuras between the Chorus One "Sehets" and the Chorus Two responses. A single-minded determination to create an intensely dramatic, operatic interpretation sweeps all before it. As Jesus, the clear voiced, straight forward Fischer-Dieskau knuckles under to Furtwngler's interpretative demands, and so do all the other soloists, the chorus, and the orchestra in this weird but often powerful reading. The score is disfigured by cuts that are almost as extreme as those made by Ramin, Kittel, and Mengelberg. Except for Fischer-Dieskau and the dramatic and tonally beautiful Elisabeth Grümmer, the soloists leave much to be desired. Höffgen is weak and wobbly; subsequent sterling performances leave no doubt that she was simply having an off day. Dermota tends to over-inflect and over-interpret, which works fine within the Furtwänglerian context, but he strains at the top in the Evangelist's recitatives. The less said about Otto Edelmann's voice, which had deteriorated badly in the four years since he had sung in Herbert von Karajan's uncut SMP at the 1950 Bach Festival in Vienna [10], the better.

There are some wonderful moments, nonetheless: A hushed a capella "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden" of ethereal beauty and a "Komm, süsses Kreuz" - with the gamba obligato adjusted to suit the 'cello - taken at a tempo slow enough to make the onomatopoetic dragging of the cross especially vivid come immediately to mind. Still, Furtwängler's is a fussy, gooey, and turgid SMP best left to his idolators.

Even in 1950, at the age of 43, Herbert von Karajan qualified as a charismatic "big name" conductor, and his complete and uncut SMP from that year contrasts sharply with Furtwängler's. Karajan's is a powerful and dramatic reading, Michelangelesque in its monumentality; he often borders on the excessive but never crosses over the line into the maudlin or the self indulgent. He has the benefit of an extraordinary cast. Walther Ludwig is a passionate, committed, and electrum throated tenor soloist, an Evangelist to be reckoned with. Irmgard Seefried is pure and impassioned in the soprano solos, and it is wonderful to have a recording of the unique Kathleen Ferrier singing all of the alto's solos in German. The balances, however, are poor, and the dry sound varies from clear to muddy throughout this recording, which apparently was salvaged from a homemade "off the air" tape.

Little changed in the nearly 25 years that elapsed before Herbert von Karajan made his studio recording of the SMP [42]. The sound is rich hued but oddly artificial, as seems to have been the conductor's preference. The reading has become quite self-indulgent and idiosyncratic, but it remains powerful nonetheless; in fact for those who prefer a "heart on the sleeve" approach to the Saint Matthew Passion, this set is one of the two best choices. Once again, the overall tactus is slow, the approach colorful but restrained. Schreier is again a top notch Evangelist, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau a forthrigh and unpretentious Jesus, and Christa Ludwig powerful in the alto solos, but Walter Berry's voice is painfully tight above the staff, particularly in the exceedingly deliberately paced "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder". Karajan chose the 1741 version of "Mein Jesus schweigt", but seems to have had the part played on the 'cello; he himself makes a cameo appearance as the organist in a maddeningly slow "Geduld, Geduld". "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden" is sung a capella, as it was in the 1950 Bach Festival performance.

Eugen Jochum's set [34] is the other good choice for those who prefer an emotionally extroverted interpretation of the Saint Matthew Passion. His is a loving, supple, dramatic, and colorful reading, with much ebb and flow, and a full range of dynamics, crescendos, and diminuendos. Another of the truly great Evangelists, Haefliger shows little vocal strain and yet greater emotional depth in this, his next to last recording of the rôle. As Jesus, Walter Berry proves dignified, solid, and mature, but never stuffy. The sensitive John Van Kesteren, however, had begun to sound a tad weary by the time he recorded the tenor arias for Jochum.

Even more gorgeous but, alas, much more difficult to obtain is the Pablo Casals broadcast performance from June, 1963 [30]. The then 86 year old Catalan 'cellist and conductor had a singular approach to music in general and Bach in particular. His compassionate interpretation is at once supple and incisive, emotional and restrained. The tonal and vocal colors are intense but subtle from the first moment to the last in this remarkable account, which is surprisingly Mendelssohnian in character. One regrets only that it is sung in English, particularly since Haefliger is the Evangelist! The other soloists are all of equally high calibre, and hearing the rich and pure soprano of Olga Iglesias makes the listener regret that this fine Puerto Rican vocalist chose not to pursue an international career. The instrumental playing is of an especially high order; in the those days the Festival Casals de Puerto Rico Orchestra was the greatest "pick-up" ensemble in the world; concertmasters from major orchestras gladly played at rear desks in the second violin section. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was prepared by Robert Shaw.

Certainly one of the more eccentric of the "big name" interpretations is Ralph Vaughan Williams' [21], recorded less than seven months before his death, on March 5, 1958, at the last of the 23 performances of the Saint Matthew Passion that he had conducted since 1931. RVW's is a very fluid, vibrantly colored, highly Romantic interpretation, most notable for a flamboyant realization of the basso continuo for the piano. (Like Sir Thomas Beecham, Vaughan Williams evidently hated the harpsichord with an almost religious fervor.) Liberally laced with sinuous and peculiar inner voices, this free wheeling, through composed part is anachronistic with a vengeance, and not without some alterations of Bach's indicated harmonies; at especially dramatic moments there are thick, grace-noted chords that call to mind the concluding bars of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne.

The orchestra, a mlange of professionals and amateurs, and the amateur chorus, are adequate, the soloists rarely more than passable in this abridged English language performance. The Evangelist, Eric Greene, who was highly regarded in his day, but by this stage in his career his voice was in tatters; the straining for the high notes is painful and much more pronounced than in the nearly complete English language set recorded nearly ten years before under the direction of Reginald Jacques [8].

Jacques's is an essentially Romantic performance that is valuable primarily as a souvenir of Kathleen Ferrier's distinctive voice, but she did better for Karajan in Vienna two years later. Of the other soloists, Elsie Suddaby is far and away the most satisfactory; her voice is light, fresh, and clear. Eric Greene, as intimated earlier, is dry and timorous; so is the Henry Cummings, who sings Jesus.

This kind of dry and querulous vocal production seems to have been prevalent in England if the few 78 RPM recordings that were made can be taken as indicative. Silver throated tenors like Walter Widdop seem to have been something of an anomaly in English Bach performances in those days. Two discs of excerpts recorded by a "Special Choir" under the direction of Dr. Ernest Bullock in Westminster Abbey about 1930 are a case in point [M-5]. The unnamed soloists are hooty and shrill; their voices are constricted and bleaty. The Evangelist sounds like Eric Greene; if it is in fact he, his voice was dry and tight even then. The choir is vast, the interpretation soupy.

Even gooier, however, is a brutally truncated version of the SMP, "newly arranged and edited by David McKinley Williams", who conducts from the organ. Recorded in St. Bartholomew's Church in New York, this twelve disc set was the first attempt at a "complete" Saint Matthew Passion [1]. A theatrical, sugar coated disaster the interpretation is memorable only because of the participation of the tenor Allan Jones, who later went to Hollywood and played the Romantic male lead in the famous Marx Brothers comedy A Night at the Opera. Jones ranks among the most powerful and emotive Evangelists. His is a big and intense voice of great power; his diction is superb. Hollywood's gain was classical music's loss.

In better taste but of similar limited interest is the single LP recorded in the early 1950s by the Handel Oratorio Society of Augustana College in Rockford, Illinois [M-18]. Billed as a "Musical Digest" arranged by Lura Stover, the soprano in this English language performance, the SMP is reduced to a simple narrative interspersed with excerpts from a handful of arias and choruses, with the instrumental ritornellos either abridged or cut altogether. The four better than average soloists and the 400 voice choir are accompanied on the organ.

From Canada in the early 1950s came a recording of the SMP under the baton of Sir Ernest MacMillan [12]. With a large chorus and orchestra, this somewhat abridged performance has little to recommend it. Edward Johnson has a rather tight wobble but has little difficulty with the range of the Evangelist's music. The bright spot is soprano Lois Marshall. Her distinctive, trumpet like voice still has the bloom of youth on it, and her interpretations evince great sensitivity.

A more interesting recorded document from the same period is an LP side of excerpts from the first performance of the Saint Matthew Passion given in Moscow, under the direction of the Latvian choral conductor Janis Dumins [M-20]. Recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the 1956-1957 season, the performance is in no way eccentric; it is cast in the middle-of-the-road Eastern European legato style, but it eschews Romantic excess except for a big decrescendo at the end of the final chorus. The whole performance certainly would be worth hearing.


The Straube/Ramin Tradition

The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition was also diluted by prominent musicians from Leipzig. The ever growing revival of interest in authentic performance practice and in old instruments that had begun at the turn of the century caused the influential organist and pedagogue, Karl Straube, who was Thomascantor from 1916 to 1938, to be "born again" musicologically. He, who, in 1904, had published a performing edition of Bach organ works for the symphonic late 19th century Romantic organ, made an about face in the 1920s and espoused the cause of the return to a more authentic performance practice for Bach's music. But, at heart, this close friend of Max Reger was still a late Romantic. The "new" Leipzig style that he forged, and that he and his pupil Günther Ramin helped to popularize and disseminate, is, significantly, less classical and straight-forward than the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy style, and is, in essence, a thorough blending of the Mendelssohn tradition, Regeresque late Romanticism, and tenets of authentic performance practice.

A comparison of either the Weisbach or the Mauersberger sets with the Ramin recording, for instance, will make the differences apparent. Straube's successor as Thomascantor, Ramin may have used smaller forces for his recording, made in the Thomaskirche in 1941, but his interpretation is much less straight forward. It is granitic and rough hewn from the opening measures, and it is neither as urgent nor as long phrased as the Weißbach or the Mauersberger. Ramin strives for and achieves a craggy monumentality and consciously avoids sentimentality. Karl Erb is the top drawer Evangelist, and the extraordinary Gerhard Hüsch sounds appropriately fresh and youthful as Jesus. Friedel Beckmann is the solid, golden voiced contralto. As mentioned earlier, the score is severely abridged, as was the practice in Thamoaskirche performances in the early years of the 20th century. Ramin's son, Dieter, however, recalls that his father battled hard with the recordings' producers to prevent still further abridgements. A complete and uncut SMP with Ramin, dating from 1950, does, however exist, and it is to be hoped that it will soon be released commercially.

For better or for worse, the Straube/Ramin approach to the performance of the Bach vocal music, emphasizing as it did smaller ensembles, crisper articulation, and shorter phrases, seemed "closer" to Bach's own practice, and it was quickly espoused by a significant number of younger conductors. The most influential of these was Karl Richter, a student of Ramin's who emigrated to the West and established the Munich Bach Choir, a crack ensemble of upwards of ninety voices. His 1958 recording of the SMP, made for the authenticity minded Deutsche Grammophon Archiv Produktion label, had a tremendous impact on performers and listeners alike [22].

Somehow or other, Richter got the reputation of being the quintessential exponent of the modern German "neo-Baroque" style. For that reason alone, what is most remarkable about Richter's approach to the Saint Matthew Passion, and there are three commercial recordings and a television film version of it, is its unabashed Romanticism. While his is essentially a more polished form of the granitic Ramin interpretation, Richter proves to be more effusive than most conductors, and he has a decided preference for slow tempos. The tempo of the opening chorus, for instance, is a little slower than Mengelberg's; and the overall tactus is quite slow, too.

Of Richter's three commercial recordings, the first is indisputably the most convincing. The interpretation is still fresh, and the soloists overall are the most satisfying. Haefliger makes his recording dbut as the Evangelist, and it is immediately apparent that he was already one of the truly great interpreters of the rôle. Fischer-Dieskau is also splendid in the bass arias. The second recording of Karl Richter [38], which appeared only in Japan, was issued as a memorial to the conductor and documents a concert performance given in Tokyo on May 29, 1969. While both the chorus and orchestra seem tired at times, the opening chorus and many of the other movements sound more chiseled and incisive. The tempos also seem even slower than on the 1958 recording. Another significant difference is the injection of a much more prominent organ continuo. In fact, the continuo realizations in general have become more florid. Haefliger is once again the tenor soloist, and the alto is the ever reliable Marga Höffgen.

The third and final recording [47], made shortly before Karl Richter's sudden and premature death, is, sadly, no credit to his memory. While his spectacular interpretation of the B Minor Mass, BWV 232, stayed ever fresh, familiarity with the Saint Matthew Passion bred stagnation. Richter's grand conception of this score, which he clearly loved deeply, is marred by overinterpretation and fussiness. The opening chorus is now not only slow but also disjointed. There is a curious slackness about the turgid overall tactus that stands in sharp contrast to both his previous recordings and the relentless vigor of Klemperer's taut but deliberate pacing. And now, for the first time, the pulse and tempo of the narrative are pushed and pulled relentlessly. As disappointing as it is, Richter's valedictory recording of the Saint Matthew Passion has many strong points. Peter Schreier is a laudable successor to Ernst Haefliger as the tenor soloist, and the special clear, molten warmth of Janet Baker's voice brings a unique beauty to both "Buss und Reu" and "Erbarme Dich, mein Gott". Richter, incidentally, accompanies the Evangelist from the harpsichord.

Often thought of as the inheritor of Richter's mantle as the most prominent choral conductor in Germany, Helmuth Rilling, the founder of the Gächinger Kantorei of Stuttgart, is also very much an interpreter in the Straube/Ramin tradition. His Saint Matthew Passion [45], however, has more of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition in it than Richter's; it is brisker and more streamlined than Richter's. The pacing is dramatic, almost operatic, but always tasteful. The solid group of soloists and impeccably trained chorus respond to Rilling's interpretative demands easily and gracefully. The 1741 gamba versions of "Mein jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used. Trivia buffs will be amused to note that David Thomas, now one of the foremost early music singers in the world, sings the part of Judas Iscariot in Rilling's recording.

A decade earlier, in 1965, Karl Münchinger, another conductor based in Stuttgart, made one of the few recordings of the Saint Matthew Passion in which a boys' choir is used [32]. Like Richter, although not to the same degree, he opts for a slow overall pacing for his Raminesque account. All of the soloists are of high quality, yet it has to be said that Peter Pears is not in as good voice as he had been for Otto Klemperer a couple of years before. Elly Ameling is radiant and bright in the soprano solos, but it is the indescribably beautiful singing of the tragically short-lived tenor Fritz Wunderlich that makes the Münchinger set worth having. The 1741 forms of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used.


Other Recordings, 1950 - 1989

The recordings of the Saint Matthew Passion published since the bicentenary of Bach's death in 1950 that have not been previously analyzed in this essay all represent, in varying degrees and proportions, blendings of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy tradition, the Ramin/Straube reaction to it, and the pressures brought to bear by the apostles of authentic performance practice. The collisions of these three contrasting approaches can have both positive and negative results.

There is no need to waste many words about Ferdinand Grossmann's undistinguished traditional account [11]. A dull conductor, drab pacing, mediocre soloists, and sound that is steely and muddy at the same time assure that this recording is eminently forgettable. The Wolfgang Gönnenwein reading [35], which is largely of the Straube/Ramin variety, looks promising on paper, but it proves a disaster on the turntable. The performance is drab in toto, but the major problem is the Evangelist, Theo Altmeyer, whose voice is tattered in the upper registers. He is simply not equal to the demands of the rôle. He declaims the recitatives at a plodding tempo that makes the narrative didactic and condescending, as if St. Matthew is telling his listeners, "I'll say this slowly so you'll be sure to understand me." It puts a wet blanket on the proceedings, in which, by the way, "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are presented in the 1741 versions. Only Julia Hamari's dignified, noble, and committed account of the alto solos makes the Gönnenwein set worth keeping.

Warmer and more gripping are three recordings made outside of Germany. The earliest is a distinguished Swedish interpretation that was broadcast from the Englebrektskyrkan in Stockholm on February 24, 1963 [29]. Under the direction of the highly respected choral conductor, Eric Ericson, the performance is remarkable for Kim Borg's dignified Jesus and John van Kesteren's Evangelist. Both men have big voices. Borg's tight small vibrato is not annoying, and van Kesteren's sails clearly and purely into the high registers without difficulty or tension. The chorus is large and somewhat distant within the reverberant acoustic.

The Frigyes Sándor account was also recorded in concert, on May 23, 1976, at the first performance of the Saint Matthew Passion in Budapest since 1928 [43]. A medium sized chorus is employed, but it has to be said that the intonation is often terribly gamey. Sándor opts for a relaxed pacing, but his contemplative and dark hued interpretation never flags, even if all the participants sound a little tired in Part Two. Vandersteene's thin and plangent voice is a bit tight in the upper registers, but his Evangelist is compelling and free of mannerisms. Hamari once again gives a sterling account of the alto solos. Sándor chose the 1741 versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld", and, for once, the gamba is correctly paired with a harpsichord.

Michel Corboz's 1982 recording [48] is very brisk overall; the interpretation is streamlined but dramatic, and is a most satisfactory, style conscious, no frills account. Gerhard Faulstisch takes an unpretentious, conversational approach to the part of Jesus; he is direct and business like. Philippe Huttenlocher shows himself to be a great singing actor, and he injects much character into the various "minor" roles that he sings with great conviction. Laudably, none of this gift for characterization intrudes into his straightforward interpretation of the bass arias. Kurt Equiluz, perhaps the finest Evangelist of the day, lives up to his well earned reputation, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson is an impassioned and colorful tenor soloist.

The late Mogens Wöldike was one of the pioneers of early music movement and also one of the world's great choral conductors. A friend and colleague of the incomparable Aksel Schiøtz, with whom he made a stunning and emotionally draining 78 of "Ich will bei meinen Jesum wachen [M-12], Wöldike recorded the Saint Matthew Passion more than a quarter of a century ago, but his graceful, contemplative, unpretentious, and affectionate account still ranks among the most satisfying ever recorded [24]. Uno Ebrelius is a dignified and poignant Evangelist, Hans Braun a no-nonsense, clean voiced Jesus. The four distinguished artists who sing the arias are all in top form, but Max Welrich steals the show. He is the best Peter of all; he is the only interpreter of that crucial small part who makes the apostle's fear when challenged and questioned audible.

While he takes into account the many developments in Bach performance practice that has taken place over the years, Johannes Somary's 1978 recording [44] is the best in the Straube/Ramin tradition; his tempos are well chosen, his pacing excellent. He also has an excellent group of soloists. This is Ernst Haefliger's latest recording of the rôle of the Evangelist. Not only does his voice seem warmer and more supple than it did twenty years before when he first recorded the part for Karl Richter, but also his interpretation has taken on a warmth, a color, and an emotional clout that it lacked two decades earlier. There is an innate pathos in Seth McCoy's unique voice that makes his singing of the tenor arias particularly affecting, and Birgit Finnil's molten tone is particularly well suited to the alto solos. The contributions of Elly Ameling, Benjamin Luxon, and Barry McDaniel are also of the first order.

The two orchestras and the two choruses are laid out antiphonally, and the spatial effects have been effectively captured by the engineers. In addition to using the gamba versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld", Somary is the only conductor to double the ripieno sopranos in the opening and closing choruses of Part One with organ, as Bach did in 1736. More conductors who use children to sing those ripieno parts should follow Bach's and Somary's lead, since such tender young amateur singers are often both off pitch and tonally acidulous.

The collision of the various performance traditions and conventions that have been - and are - applied to the Saint Matthew Passion has also created havoc and brought about disaster. Peter Schreier's recording [50] is a witches' brew of Mendelssohn, Karl Richter, and the faddish trappings of "authentic performance practice". The opening chorus is taken at a good clip, but the momentum is eviscerated by "chunka-chunka" articulation and mild sforzandi on strong beats; this unsettling opening is not a good omen. Schreier injects so much gratuitous articulation into the obligato of "Erbarme Dich, meinGott" that all of the plaintive sinuousness is destroyed. The whole performance is fussy and finicky because of his misguided attempt to be "with it" musicologically. In addition to conducting, Schreier sings the Evangelist; it is his only unsatisfactory account of the part - undisciplined and dramatic in the pejorative sense of the term. The patrician and poignant Evangelist that he called forth for Mauersberger, Richter, and Karajan has evaporated completely. Theo Adam is still a majestic Jesus in spite of it all, but his voice has now developed a rather pronounced wobble. The 1741 versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used.

Schreier's sins, however, are insignificant when compared to Raymond Leppard's [49]. His self-indulgent, egocentric "interpretation" is stuffed with every cheap authentic performance practice conjuror's trick imaginable, including but not limited to the application of inappropriate embellishments and performance conventions. For instance, what grounds does Leppard have for thinking that the appogiatura convention was applicable to narrative recitatives in provincial Saxony in 1736? "Blute nur" is disfigured by the bizarre intermittent slamming of strong beats. And the catalogue of atrocities goes on and on. The soloists don't help much. Jon Garrison produces an unpleasant constricted sound to begin with and exacerbates matters with a pretentious operatic over-interpretation of the rle of the Evangelist; at least his approach is congruent with Leppard's flashy and fussy doings. This performance, in which the 1741 versions of "Mein Jesus schweigt" and "Geduld, Geduld" are used, can safely be said to be the only one on records that will arouse the righteous ire of all sensitive listeners who have the courage to confront it.



Those who are truly interested in finding out how Bach heard the Saint Matthew Passion should try to find a copy of the tape of the Rifkin broadcast [53]. The choice among the three commerical period instrument recordings available at the time this essay was finished -- the first Harnoncourt [39], the Herreweghe [51], and the Gardiner [56] -- will depend on the listener's preference for an extroverted interpretation, an inward approach, or a large scaled late Classical style reading.

Those who prefer the classic Mendelssohnian approach on modern instruments will find the Lehmann [9] and the Mauersberger [40] to be the most accurate and the most compelling, but both of these are out of print. {Both have since been reissued and are currently available.} That Solti [55] and Klemperer [26] are marginally less faithful to the true early 19th century style is immaterial. Both sets rank among the greatest interpretations of the SMP on record.

The collector who prefers a charismatic, Romantic approach will want the 1950 Karajan performance [10] if sound quality is not an important consideration. If it is, either the second Karajan [42] or the Jochum [34] set will prove eminently satisfactory.

Those who want a "modern" but relatively "authentic" interpretation will want to choose from the Wöldike [24] (the most conservative and Mendelssohnian), the Somary [44] (the most Raminesque), and the Corboz [48] (the fleetest and the most streamlined).


Alphabetical Discography





Anderson, Marian (alto)



No. 47 only



same as Balzer [16]; really the Fritz Lehmann

Balzer, Joseph


pseudonymous; really the Fritz Lehmann commercial recording [9]

Bernstein, Leonard



sung in English, abridged

Bullock, Dr. Ernest

about 1930


Nos. 54, 71, 72, 78 only

Casals, Pablo



Corboz, Michel



1st recording

Dumins, Janis



Nos. 1, 3, 15, 43, 67, 78 only

Egmond, Piet van

Early 1950s


Ericson, Eric



Förster, Karl

Early 1960s


Nos. 1, 3, 16, 21, 23, 31, 35, 38, 44, 48, 53, 55, 63, 72, 78

Furtwängler, Wilhelm



omits 19, 23, 29, 38, 40, 41, 48-51, 55, 61, 64, 70, 75; abridges 32, 34, 39, 52, 63, 67, 73, 76

Gardiner, John Eliot



Gönnenwein, Wolfgang



Göttsche, Heinz Markus



Grossmann, Ferdinand

Early 1950s


Harnoncourt, Nikolaus



1st recording,

Harnoncourt, Nikolaus



2nd recording

Herreweghe, Philippe



1st recording

Jacques, Reginald



Jochum, Eugen



Karajan, Herbert von



1st recording

Karajan, Herbert von



2nd recording

Kittel, Bruno

Mid 1930s


omits 19, 23, 28, 29, 38, 40, 41, 48 - 51, 55, 61, 64-66, 70, 75; abridges 10, 12, 34, 35, 37, 39, 52, 54, 59, 63, 67, 73, 76, 78

Kittel, Bruno



Nos. 33, 44, 63, and 78 only

Klemperer, Otto



Koussevitzky, Serge



Lehmann, Fritz



Leisner, Emmi (alto)

Mid 1930s


No. 47 only

Leppard, Raymond



MacMillan, Sir Ernest

Early 1950s


Mauersberger, Erhard & Rudolf



Mengelberg, Willem



Münchinger, Karl



Ochs, Siegfried



No. 1 only

Offers, Maartje (alto)

Late 1930s?


Onegin, Sigrid (alto)

Late 1930s?


No. 47 only

Ramin, Günther



Omits 18, 19, 28-31, 34, 37, 38, 41, 56, 61, 65, 66, 70, 75

Richter, Karl



1st recording

Richter, Karl



nd recording

Richter, Karl



4th recording

Rifkin, Joshua



Live performance, not yet released

Rilling, Helmuth



1st recording

Sándor, Frigyes



Scherchen, Hermann



Aksel Schiøtz



Aria Schmerz-Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen

Schreier, Peter



Solti, Sir Georg



Somary, Johannes



Thomas, Kurt



Tourel, Jennie (mezzo-soprano)



No. 47 only

Vaughan Williams, Ralph



Omits 9, 10, 18, 19, 38 - 41, 49-52, 60, 61, 65, 66, and 68

van der Horst, Anthon



Veld, Henry

Early 1950s



Walter, Bruno



Part One only; abridges Nos. 10, 12, 19, and 29

Weißbach, Hans



Widdop, Walter (tenor)



Nos. 25 and 26 only

Williams, David McKinley

around 1930


Omits 6 - 10, 19, 20, 22, 25, 27 - 29, 34 - 36, 38 - 39, 46, 48, 49, 51, 57, 58, 60, 61, 64-68, 70, 74-76; abridges 37, 47, 50, 52, 59, 73, 78

Wöldike, Mögens




Copyright Contributed by Teri Noel Towe (December 2001). Written by Teri Noel Towe, and originally printed in Choral Music on Record, edited by Alan Blyth (Cambridge University Press, first published 1991). The copyrights in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press. Should you choose to honour Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from the article, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final versions of the discographies are to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the essays appear at this Website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

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 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | 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 - L. Bernstein | BWV 244 - F. Brüggen | BWV 244 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - R. Chailly | BWV 244 - S. Cleobury | BWV 244 - J. Daus | BWV 244 - D. Fasolis | BWV 244 - W. Furtwängler | BWV 244 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 244 - W. Gönnenwein | BWV 244 - P. Goodwin | BWV 244 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 244 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 244 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 244 - R. Jacques | BWV 244 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 244 - O. Klemperer | BWV 244 - T. Koopman | BWV 244 - S. Koussevitzky | BWV 244 - S. Kuijken | BWV 244 - F. Lehmann | BWV 244 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 244 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 244 - E.&R. Mauersberger | BWV 244 - H. Max | BWV 244 - P. McCreesh | BWV 244 - W. Mengelberg | BWV 244 - K. Münchinger | BWV 244 - R. Norrington | BWV 244 - G. Oberfrank | BWV 244 - S. Ozawa | BWV 244 - A. Parrott | BWV 244 - G. Ramin | BWV 244 - S. Rattlr | BWV 244 - K. Richter | BWV 244 - H. Rilling | BWV 244 - H.J. Rotzsch | BWV 244 - H. Scherchen | BWV 244 - G. Solti | BWV 244 - C. Spering | BWV 244 - M. Suzuki | BWV 244 - J.v. Veldhoven | BWV 244 - B. Walter | BWV 244 - F. Werner | BWV 244 - M. Wöldike
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [T.N. Towe] | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) [U. Golomb] | St. Matthew Passion from Harnoncourt [D. Satz] | The Passion according to Saint Matthew BWV 244 [J. Rifkin] | The Relationship between BWV 244a (Trauermusik) and BWV 244b (SMP Frühfassung) [T. Braatz] | Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 - Early History (A Selective, Annotated Bibliography) [W. Hoffman] | Spiritual Sources of Bach's St. Matthew Passion [W. Hoffman] | Bach and the "Great Passion" [D.G. Lebut Jr.] | The Genesis of Bach's `Great Passion': 1724-29 [W. Hoffman] | Early Performances of Bach's SMP [T. Braatz]


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Last update: Sunday, May 28, 2017 14:21