- St. Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion), for soloists, double chorus & double orchestra, BWV 244 (BC D3b)
It's incredible that a work considered as securely at the core of the Western musical canon as J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" didn't receive a complete recording until after the Second World War, and that prior to that, unabridged performances were exceptionally rare; even Mendelssohn's momentous 1841 Leipzig performance was heavily cut, and Mendelssohn's son reported that even so, much of the audience "fled yawning before it was over." The earliest nearly complete recording was made in 1941 with Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra and Thomanernchor, and those same forces are brought together again, along with the Tölzer Knabenchor, in this 2009 performance led by Riccardo Chailly. The orchestra uses modern rather than period instruments, but Chailly is aware of the conventions of historically informed performance practice and deploys his forces with discretion, so the result is appropriately intimate, with the full forces reserved for moments like the overwhelming outbursts of the Crowd. The work is scored for two choirs and orchestras, and the use of a boy's choir highlights the contrast between the groups, a distinction that can be less distinct on recordings where two adult choirs are employed. Chailly is not particularly known as a Baroque specialist, but he brings understanding and commanding leadership to the passion and his performance is notable for its fleet sense of dramatic urgency. His many soloists are consistently impressive. Johannes Chum has the kind of light tenor stereotypically associated with the role of the Evangelist, but he handles it with exemplary conviction and sensitivity. Bass Hanno Müller-Brachman is powerful and warmly expressive as Jesus. The remaining soloists, soprano Christina Landshamer, alto Marie-Claude Chappuis, tenor Maximilian Schmitt, and basses Thomas Quasthoff (in a spectacular case of luxury casting) and Klaus Häger, are all absolutely first-rate, consistently pure of tone, with thoughtful, moving interpretations. The sound is clean, clear, and warm, with excellent definition and ambience. This recording would make a fine choice for anyone looking for a modern instrument version of this masterpiece.