St. Matthew Passion
John Nelson, cond; Werner Güra (
); Stephen Morscheck (
); Lucy Crowe (sop); Christine Rice (mez); Nicholas Phan (ten); Matthew Brook (bs-bar); Bertrand Grunewald (bs); Schola Cantorum of Oxford; Maîtrise de Paris; Paris CO
EUROARTS 3079658 (2 DVDs: 177:00) Live: Paris 7/2011
In a sense I’ve always felt somewhat proprietary towards John Nelson’s career, rooting for him as he moved from triumph to triumph because I remember him way back when he conducted in New Jersey during the early 1970s. I’ve also wondered why such a great conductor with so many decades of experience behind him hasn’t made more recordings in general than he has. In my view, he deserves to be as frequently recorded as Doráti or Böhm were, or as Adam Fischer is today: complete symphony cycles, several operatic performances, etc.
This DVD is a case in point. Surprisingly, considering that he has been conducting this work for the past three decades or more, this is Nelson’s first recording of the
St. Matthew Passion.
It’s an excellent performance of this massive work which I will return to discussing shortly, but first a few words on the making of the performance, which I watched first. This documentary on Nelson’s rehearsals and approach, unusually, occupies a separate DVD of its own (along with a promotional blurb about the wonderfulness of the Soli Deo Gloria series). What I found astonishing, at least to someone of my generation, was that in his very first piano rehearsal with mezzo Christine Rice, Nelson says to her, “This is the first time I’m hearing your voice.”
No wonder we get casts for opera, operetta, and concert works nowadays where one or more of the singers have defective voices of one sort or another. The conductor doesn’t even know what his soloists
like prior to starting rehearsals? And bear in mind, Nelson is now an older, well-established conductor with nearly 40 years of major-league experience behind him. What, then, do comparative youngsters like Vladimir Jurowski (to pull just one name out of a hat) have to say about who they get stuck with in their performances? (I can just imagine what a cantankerous guy like Otto Klemperer would have said if Walter Legge had saddled him with someone who couldn’t sing. “Valter. Ve must talk. Dis soprano is
Get me Sena Jurinac or I valk!” But then move it to today: “Oh, you want to walk? Fine. We can get Joe X, who is one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation because we say so, and he’ll direct this performance for far less money than you!”)
But it’s quite interesting to see how Nelson
get exactly what he wants. As it happens, Rice has a gorgeous voice but had never sung the
or “Erbarme dich” before, so Nelson had to direct her not only in terms of tempo and phrasing but also when to sing softer and more “inward,” when to drain the voice of vibrato, etc. And, magically, it works. Werner Güra also has a splendid voice, but our Jesus (Stephen Morscheck) has a slow wobble that nothing short of retraining the voice can help. Oh, well. Tenor soloist Nicholas Phan also has a good voice, but to my ears his bright and pointed timbre makes him sound almost exactly like the Evangelist. They could have switched parts with little or no difference in sound, and for me that isn’t quite right. Our bass-baritone soloist, Mathew Brook, has exactly the right sound and weight for his music.
I do agree with Nelson that although it would be nice to hear this work played with period instruments, it shouldn’t be
to just those type of instruments, that to hear the music is more important than to hear baroque violins all playing in straight tone, etc. “[Bach’s]
is the most important thing to listen to, not the specific color of a specific instrument etc….Authenticity is not, for me, doing it with the proper instruments…there are so many performances out there that are so bloody
because all they think about is style…and for me they miss the whole point of the piece.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, but this is possibly one reason why Nelson is not as frequently recorded as his talent deserves. The historically informed mindset has become a rigid set of rules, almost a belief system in itself.
By this time you will have already imagined what this performance sounds like: heartfelt, with some period-performance touches (a viola da gamba, occasionally vibratoless singing), but largely an emotional religious experience because that is how Nelson views this music. I found it quite moving in its own way, much like Helmuth Rilling’s magnificent recording of the work, which is my benchmark performance. A good indication of the general feel of this version is the way the chorus enters in No. 27b, “Sind Blitze, sind Donner”: not merely brisk, but with an edginess in the singing that raises the dramatic level considerably; then immediately following, when the Evangelist sings “Und siehe, einer aus denen,” the thrust of the music is still moving forward, linking it to the previous choral passage. In Nelson’s hands, then, the entire piece—from start to finish, all three hours of it—has not only a direction but a flow. There are a certain number of
and moments of rubato; when they occur you notice them because the forward momentum is slightly halted. Thus the pauses one hears, short or extended, almost seem like exclamation points because they are relatively rare and handled with dramatic sureness. Nelson also handles such moments as the short, stabbing lower string figures in No. 34 (the tenor recitative) in such a way that they make the music sound halting and brittle, like the steps of the condemned to the gallows. Then, when da gamba player Christophe Colin enters behind the tenor for his aria, the chopping rhythm of the previous section, though doubled in tempo, is maintained. And further on, when mezzo Rice sings her famous “Erbarme dich,” the same plodding, slightly choppy rhythm is maintained, this time on all four beats of nearly every bar. Little touches like these manifest themselves throughout the performance, adding detail to an already well-detailed score. The Basilica of Saint-Denis, in which this performance took place, is a reverberant concert space, conducive to large forces in creating a nice ambience but somewhat softening the clarity of the strings. Thus you gain some things and lose others. Happily, the woodwinds and brass are wonderfully clear, and the bright, pointed voices of the Oxford Schola Cantorum and the Maîtrise de Paris cut through the ambience.
Like the other entries in this DVD series—all conducted by Nelson—a fairly large number of HDTV cameras catch everything from several different angles. (A review for one of the other performances in this series says that the director used seven cameras.) Although everything is clear to view, the lights seem to be kept a bit on the low side, giving the whole scene a rather subdued, orange-y glow. If you don’t own a video production of the
St. Matthew Passion
and want one, this is an excellent choice. If you simply want an excellent audio recording, however, I recommend the Rilling.
Lynn René Bayley