DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Blu-ray (2012)

A period performance using modern instruments, right in Bach’s home parish.

Published on February 2, 2013

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, Blu-ray (2012) 

Christina Landshamer (soprano)/ Stefan Kahle (alto)/ Wolfram Lattke (tenor)/ Martin Lattke (tenor)/ Klaus Mertens (bass)/ Gotthold Schwarz (bass)/ Choir of St. Thomas Leipzig/ Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch./ Georg Christoph Biller
Producer: Paul Smaczny, Günter Atteln
Director: Michael Beyer
Studio: Accentus Music ACC 10256 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: German, English, French, Japanese
All Regions
Length: 163:58
Rating: ****

Between 1727 and 1742 Bach created no fewer than four versions of this piece, nothing radical, but he did introduce new parts for each iteration. Two years before the first performance he finished his second of three cantata cycles, and began the third towards the end of 1725, and so the gestation of the St. Matthew Passion was in many ways the fulfillment of a progression in sophistication that found its culmination in what would be the major choral work of the next 100 years. More than any other work of his, Bach’s Passion explores the biblical narrative from multiple viewpoints, contemplative, action, reflection, and the specific vantage point of its main characters. Musically there is an astounding variety of instrumentation and carefully formed accompaniment for each piece, and at least from 1736 on the double chorus was fitted perfectly to the acoustics of the St. Thomas Church where it was first performed.

Having said all of that, the piece can become tiresome for those non-German speakers as the text is so vitally linked to the music. What is needed is a performance that keeps things moving yet also takes on almost operatic quality in the fervency of its dramatic presentation. Actually seeing the singers proclaim their parts helps enormously in many instances, and this video is one of them. Period style abounds with the lack of vibrato, but the fullness of the orchestra (played on modern instruments) and sizable men’s/boys choir makes for an experience in my mind more true to form than the one-to-a-part aberrations that have become so prevalent today. Though I do prefer women to boys in this music one can hardly argue about the authenticity of a group of choristers that goes back to Bach’s day.

I am not usually in the mood, or have the time to watch a complete performance of this work; most of the time I would put it on CD or SACD while doing other things, but watching this performance does add a degree of color and fascination to the piece that is good to bring back to one’s remembrance, observing the players, the instruments, and the way the entire ensemble gels so beautifully. The playing of the Gewandhaus is simply gorgeous, and the singers not far behind. If a concert performance of this work interests you, the performance is wonderful and the stunning visuals of Bach’s Thomaskirche make for a fine coat of icing on the cake.

—Steven Ritter




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