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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 26, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 17
Passion, perfectly realized
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Passion, perfectly realized

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

BACH, J.S.: ST. MATTHEW PASSION (1727)
ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA AMSTERDAM
(Arthaus Musik Blu-ray)


Whenever a newly arrived disc gives me this much joy, I am compelled to share it with friends - both for the sheer pleasure of sharing a treasure and to see if my goosebumps are peculiar to me or a common response. In the process, I get to experience the disc multiple times in a short timeframe and see if the pleasure deepens or tires.

Recorded live just a year ago at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, this new Blu-ray release exceeds all expectations, both musically and technically. The sound and picture could hardly be better, with tasteful camera angles and close-ups that inform our listening as well as please the eye. Optional subtitles help make this St. Matthew Passion a compelling narrative and underscore the emotional message of each segment. So compelling is Bach's musical invention that he almost succeeds in making me a Christian for its three hours! Though the musical message is of course deeply religious, the level of inspiration at nearly every moment is such that it requires no level of belief for the listener to be utterly transported.

There is absolutely nothing about this performance to stand between the listener and the astounding power of Bach's genius. Hungarian Iván Fischer leads the soloists, double choir (plus children's choir), and double orchestra with self-effacing dedication and effectiveness. Despite the considerable number of performers, the sound is always transparent, and the effect is one of airy delicacy with power in reserve. Even though the orchestra is in fact the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the sound is not the least bit heavy, with the strings using almost no vibrato. Even fans of John Eliot Gardiner's superb CDs of this work will not be put off by the modern instruments.

Vocal forces include the Netherlands Radio Choir and the National Children's Choir, in addition to the eight soloists. The Children's Choir has a lot of singing to do, yet the children are the only singers without scores!

The tenor part of the Evangelist lies extremely high, but Mark Padmore handles it with apparent ease and appropriate emotion. All the soloists are excellent, with Ingeborg Danz's ample and warm alto especially effective in her 'Erbarme dich,' surely one of the disc's highlights. The sublime violin solo accompanying her does use vibrato to lovely effect. For eye candy, it would be hard to top bass Henk Neven, who delivered his two arias with dramatic passion and a shimmer-fast vibrato.

The 'goosebumps test' yielded nearly unanimous agreement that this is a nigh-perfect realization of one of the greatest products the human spirit has ever produced. Repeated hearings only strengthened that impression. It is now one of the most prized items in my collection.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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