Classical: CD Review

BACH: ST MATTHEW PASSION RECORDED 1953 MILLENNIUM CLASSICS UMD 80470 (3 CDS)

TELL ME your character, and I will find you a St Matthew Passion that fits. And there are plenty of options on the shelves, from devotional Karl Richter (Archiv), stoical Klemperer (EMI) and romantic Mengelberg (Lys), to the grass-roots period instrument approaches of Gardiner (Archiv), Koopman (Erato), Harnoncourt (Teldec) and Bruggen (Philips).

If, however, you are as temperamental, unpredictable and unclassifiable as Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966), then this long-awaited reissue may prove to be the St Matthew of your dreams. Stylistically, it is an oddball marriage of Baroque-style buoyancy and post-Wagnerian rhetoric. It is also the sort of radical rethink that you might have expected from a committed socialist and a man who was himself something of a musical evangelist. He promoted Mahler when it was politically incorrect to do so, protested Schoenberg when few cared to listen, orchestrated Bach and recorded a vast chunk of mixed repertory, from Beethoven's symphonies to the "Sabre Dance".

His 1953 mono St Matthew Passion is distinguished, first and foremost, by Hugues Cuenod's plangent but powerful Evangelist and Heinz Rehfuss's velvet-voiced Jesus. The opening chorus is one of the most animated on disc, and that at the close, one of the broadest. The arias are beautifully sung, though Scherchen's speeds are invariably eccentric. Hilde Rossl- Majdan is given 10 minutes to unfold her soulful aria "Konnen Tranen meiner Wangen" (three minutes more than she takes under Mogens Woldike for Vanguard) though earlier, when she sings in duet with soprano Magda Laszlo, the tempo is disquietingly fast.

There is no spurious tradition at work here, no cop-out dependence on inherited formulae, but a fresh, personal and perennially challenging re-interpretation, charged with vitality and uncommonly well engineered for its 45 years. But beware: Westminster recordings (which is what most of these "millennium classics" are) tend not to hang around for long, so snap this up.

Robert Cowan

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