Bach: St. Matthew Passion / Richter, Haefliger, Engen, Seefried, Fischer-Dieskau

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BACH St. Matthew Passion • Karl Richter, cond; Irmgard Seefried, Antonie Fahberg (sop); Hertha Töpper (alt); Ernst Häfliger (ten); Kieth Engen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Max Proebstl...

BACH St. Matthew Passion Karl Richter, cond; Irmgard Seefried, Antonie Fahberg (sop); Hertha Töpper (alt); Ernst Häfliger (ten); Kieth Engen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Max Proebstl (bs); Munich Children’s Ch & Bach Ch; Munich Bach O PROFIL 12008 (3 CDs: 197:03 & German only)

This is the latest reissue of Karl Richter’s fabled 1959 (sometimes labeled 1958) recording of Bach’s masterpiece, made roughly one year before Otto Klemperer’s equally slow and lyrically phrased EMI version was deemed an instant classic by most critics of the time. Only one singer is common to both recordings, and that is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Even though the Richter version is rather slow by today’s standards, Klemperer slowed down the clock even more, prompting the baritone to cautiously approach the aging conductor and ask him, on behalf of the other singers, why his tempos were so slow. As usual, he got a funny but biting retort from the conductor: “I had a dream last night, too. I also saw Bach and talked to him, and he said to me, ‘You are doing a fine job with my Passion. But who is this Fischer?’”

Nevertheless, in traversing the Internet I’ve discovered that this recording is still a favorite with many listeners, and not just those who grew up with it. Some argue that Klemperer is deeper and more profound, others the opposite. Some claim that Richter’s 1979 remake with the same orchestra (on DG Archiv), also with Fischer-Dieskau (this time as Jesus rather than the bass soloist) but with soprano Edith Mathis, tenor Peter Schreier, and bass Matti Salminen, is better because Richter pays more attention to ornamentation and orchestral parts. In the 1959 recording, none of the singers perform all their written trills that often echo the instrumental accompaniment, while in 1979 they do. The later Richter version uses a harpsichord in the secco recitatives instead of the organ heard in 1959. But compromises of taste must always come into play when listening to, or reviewing, any pre-1970 Bach. We tend to forget how much the recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus were game-changers in modern tastes, despite the occasionally strident or odd sound of those early period instruments.

For me, the greatest of all St. Matthew Passion recordings, on balance, is the stunning 1994 Helmuth Rilling version on Hänssler Classic 98925. Like the “three Karls” (Munchinger, Ristenpart, and Richter), Rilling was also there in the 1950s when the Bach revival was coming about in Germany, but since he was considerably younger than they were, he was able to keep on going much longer and absorb more of the historically informed performance practices that came about in the 1980s. Rilling, like me, has never really bought into the concept of straight tone for the strings or insisting that none of his singers have any sort of vibrato in their voices, but he did adopt a more rhythmically light approach, with smaller choruses than those used by Richter or Klemperer, without sacrificing his inherent ability to draw an emotionally committed performance from his forces. A good indication as to how much slower Richter’s 1959 recording is than Rilling’s: all of part I fits on the first CD in Rilling’s set, and clocks in at a little under 75 minutes, whereas Richter’s performance has to have the last three tracks of part I put at the start of CD 2, and his timing for that portion is 86:29. That’s a pretty wide disparity, and in this case you can not only hear but feel the difference. Richter’s performance of the opening chorus, “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen,” takes 9:45 (still faster than Klemperer, who as I recall took around 11 minutes to perform it) while Rilling goes through it in 6:57. To his credit, Richter does not always have his orchestra and chorus play and sing in a strictly legato fashion; times were beginning to change (well, for everyone except Otto Klemperer), and there is more rhythmic pointing in Richter’s version. Also, the orchestra and chorus both sound lighter than Klemperer’s. I have no head count of the number of musicians used on both, but Richter sounds as if he is using fewer. In any event, his textures are far more transparent.

As for the soloists—taking those differences in style into account—both this Richter version and the Rilling have much to commend them. As much as I love Michael Schade on the Rilling version, Ernst Häfliger is definitely his equal as both a vocalist and interpreter. (Both tenors sing both the Evangelist and the tenor arias; on the Klemperer recording, Peter Pears is the superb Evangelist while Nicolai Gedda sings the arias.) Kieth Engen is a superb interpreter as Jesus, but so is Matthias Goerne in the Rilling set, and Goerne’s voice is a bit firmer of tone. (Engen had the beginnings of a bass wobble in his voice at the time of recording.) Fischer-Dieskau is a hard act to equal, let alone surpass, but Thomas Quasthoff gives one of his greatest performances on disc in the Rilling version. Irmgard Seefried, though only 40 at the time, sounds a little edgy in her top notes, which were starting to wear, whereas Christiane Oelze for Rilling is both bright and fresh-voiced. Contralto Hertha Töpper was even younger than Seefried (35), but a decade of singing Wagner roles began to undermine her vibrato a bit, too, though I find both her singing and interpretation quite affecting. Ingeborg Danz in 1994, however, is equally fine, possesses a firmer voice, and Rilling does not let the tempo sag occasionally as Richter does (listen to “Buss und Reu” in part I).

Yet, in the end, it almost seems like splitting hairs to choose between these two versions. The little flaws in the Richter version are venial rather than mortal sins. By and large, the feel of this Richter performance is not as heavy as Klemperer. Some find that a good thing, and some don’t; matters of personal taste always enter the picture, particularly where religious music is concerned. The bottom line is that, although I still prefer Rilling, if this were the only recording of this piece I had ever heard or owned I would certainly not be disappointed. Perhaps the best way to end this review is to say that if you don’t already own the Rilling recording, you might want to buy this one. Both are at the very pinnacle of St. Matthew Passion performances.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 24, 2012

  • UPC: 881488120080

  • Catalog Number: PH12008

  • Label: Hänssler & Profil

  • Number of Discs: 3

  • Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Conductor: Karl Richter

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Munich Bach Choir, Munich Bach Orchestra, Munich Choir Boys

  • Performer: Antonia Fahberg, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ernst Haefliger, Hertha Töpper, Irmgard Seefried, Kieth Engen, Max Proebstl


  1. Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

    Ensemble: Munich Bach Choir, Munich Bach Orchestra, Munich Choir Boys

    Performer: Kieth Engen (Bass), Antonia Fahberg (Soprano), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Bass), Ernst Haefliger (Tenor), Max Proebstl (Bass), Irmgard Seefried (Soprano), Hertha Töpper (Alto)

    Conductor: Karl Richter