Bach St Matthew Passion Klemperer Warner 2435675382

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2001 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion
Peter Pears (Evangelist)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Jesus)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry, John Carol Case, Otakar Kraus, Helen Watts, Geraint Evans, Wilfred Brown
Boys of Hampstead Parish Church Choir
Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Originally reviewed as EMI 5675382
Warner Classics 2435675382 [3 CDs: 224]

This may not be the most authentic of Bach performances but EMI have quite rightly included it in their ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. The 1962 recording has come brilliantly to life, with great impact and abundant atmosphere, while the orchestral playing, with the Philharmonia on top form, is of the highest possible quality.

The nature of the experience is apparent from the first bar, as Klemperer’s magisterial slow tempo sets in for the opening chorus. Too slow, one might be tempted to think, but the concentration is such that doubts recede as the vision takes hold. The chorales too are particularly broad, and occasionally they do seem mannered, although the textures, beautifully separated by the clear recording, are always full of interest. The contributions of the Hampstead Boys Choir are distinguished and add an extra finesse to all the numbers in which they participate.

Then there are the soloists, and if one seeks a reason to invest in this performance, it surely lies here. They are magnificent, both individually and as a team. The role of Evangelist particularly suits Peter Pears, for his voice is strongly characterised and seems just right for the role, while he is superbly complemented by Fischer-Dieskau, a great Bach singer, as Christ. The other roles are less central, but the artists are the leading singers of the day, and it shows.

Klemperer holds the whole performance under his magisterial spell, and as a result the concentration and the vision build stage by stage, making the experience thoroughly compelling. Of course the latest scholarship and performance practice calls his concept into question, but doubters should listen beyond the appearance offered by the opening bars and experience what this truly is: one of the great recordings of the century. Bach remains the most indestructible of composers, and there are different ways of performing his music. The tradition represented by Klemperer has much to tell us about this music.

Terry Barfoot

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