The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan
Friday 08 June 2001 00:00
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If ever proof were needed that computer software can help facilitate a fuller understanding of great music, then Teldec's new St Matthew Passion under Nikolaus Harnoncourt provides it. Feed the third CD of this handsome three-disc set into your PC (or Mac) and, in addition to accessing the purely audio material, you can follow the entire recording with Bach's own autograph score. And there are no worries about page turning. That's all done for you, while the birdlike curlicues of Bach's handwriting, so graceful and varied, provide a visual hypnosis that fits the music: the pulsing bass line of the opening chorus is like an army of witnesses watching the Passion gradually unfold.

But if you choose to access a favourite aria or chorale, all you have to do is scroll down to the appropriate track and up comes the relevant page with a manuscript segment focused in bold. It's that simple.

This is the finest, certainly the most natural, of the three Harnoncourt St Matthews that Teldec has given us so far, a swift, pliant and artfully shaped performance, with an expressive slant to the singing. Each of the two antiphonal choruses is allotted its own set of soloists. Christine Schäfer, Bernarda Fink, Michael Schade and Dietrich Henschel make up the principal team; Matthias Goerne clothes Jesus in a veiled, warm-grained baritone and tenor Christoph Prégardien evangelises without hectoring.

The mellifluous woodwinds of Concentus musicus blend well within the overall texture, though Harnoncourt is always careful to allow the weaving stands of Bach's counterpoint plenty of air.

A good place to sample is the choral "O mensch, bewein' dein Sünde gross" (disc 1, track 29), where clarity, mobility and rhythmic lift combine with an arching legato. A genuine feeling of drama is never allowed to freewheel into stylistically inappropriate melodrama.

And then there's the packaging, a sturdy hard-cover laminated CD book, lavishly illustrated, with notes and disc-envelopes interleaved. It's a classy production.

Bach: St Matthew Passion ­ Christoph Prégardien, Matthias Goerne, Christine Schäfer, Bernarda Fink, Michael Schade, Dietrich Henschel, etc, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Concentus musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 8573-81036-2 ­ three discs, including enhanced CD containing the full autograph score)

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