It’s 28 years since René Jacobs sung the alto arias on Phillipe Herreweghe’s first recording of the St. Matthew Passion, which despite many superb recordings over the years has remained my favourite until now. Since taking up the baton Jacobs has given us some extraordinarily bold and personal visions of the sacred and profane. Having finally tackled this greatest masterpiece of all he is bound to cause a great deal of critical tutt-tutting with this defiantly “post-historical” interpretation using the superb RIAS Kammerchor, who have a fuller sound than the usual specialist early music ensembles and a lineup of operatic soloists; this is a redbloodedly sensual performance that may make purists foam at the mouth.
In typical Jacobs’ fashion the recitatives are enhanced with a more varied continuo than usual; it is quite a shock to hear harpsichord and lute alongside the usual organ. Sunhae Im delivers soprano arias with a sinfully feminine allure (no pallid impersonations of boy sopranos here) and Bernarda Fink’s alto arias are passionately heartfelt although her tone is finally starting to show some wear; her Erbarme dich is a devastating expression of guilt.
Werner Güra’s stunningly well sung Evangelist drives the narrative forward with marvelously detailed word-painting as one would expect from one of the finest Lieder singers on the planet – he is a bafflingly underrated artist. Thanks to Jacobs’ casting genius, his Don Giovanni(!!) Johannes Weisser, sings Jesus with perfect weight of voice; not the usual sepulchral-toned figure but a noble young man of deep compassion and humanity. Both basses are superb with Konstantin Wolff’s Mache dich gently consoling and his Komm, sü.es Kreuz for once recorded with its original lute obbligato instead of gamba.
The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin provide a vibrant tapestry of sound as a backdrop for the marvellous RIAS Kammerchor who as a choir are truly in a class apart. Behold that breathtaking sequence of numbers at the end of Part One, the anger in Sind Blitze, sind Donner terrifying in its intensity, or the way the chorales are inflected according to dramatic context.
The recording presents a radically different perspective eschewing the usual stereophonic layout with the second group centrally placed at a distance, taking its cue from Bach historian Konrad Küster’s theory that the two ensembles were at opposite ends of the Thomaskirche. Vivid and multi-layered as it sounded in stereo I would love to hear the recording in full multichannel replay. Harmonia Mundi provides its usual superbly presented annotation and a bonus behind-the-scenes DVD.