Here are my three favourite recordings of J S Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with annotations.
Karl Richter (1958): J.S.Bach "St.Mattaus Passion" [ K.Richter Münich-Bach-O ] (1958) - YouTube (3:17:44)
This is the recording I’d play for anybody who had never heard the music before. There’s nothing to dislike in it, but after twenty or thirty listenings I found that I wanted more misery, more drama, and more mystery.
Otto Klemperer (1961): Bach - Matthäus Passion BWV 244 / St Matthew Passion (recording of the Century : Otto Klemperer) - YouTube (3:43:29)
There’s no lack of misery and mystery here! It’s the slowest and gloomiest of all St Matthew Passions, and also the most divine, in its heavenly chorales. But the Suffering Servant was human as well as divine, and there isn’t quite as much human drama here as I want.
Willem Mengelberg (live, 1939): Bach - BWV244 St. Matthew Passion (Willem Mengelberg, 1939, slightly abridged) - YouTube (2:43:04)
Mengelberg has the best orchestra, the best choir and the best soloists. His interpretation has the best balance between divine and human. It’s almost perfect - but alas! there are numerous cuts, some of them monstrous.
So none of my favourite recordings is entirely satisfactory. But Mengelberg’s performance is my current first choice, because it has a terrifying atmosphere of the brink of world war about it.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t picked any more modern versions, I have two answers.
I want an orchestra to sound like an orchestra, not like a string quartet. I want a choir to sound like a choir, not like a glee club. Many modern performances are ruled out for me because they lack any contrast between “solo” and “ripieno”.
I want an adagio or a largo to be played slowly and seriously, and not to give the impression that the musicians are in a hurry to get the damn thing finished before the pubs shut.
These objections apply to all “historically informed” performances of everything. Too often we hear not what J S Bach imagined in his head, but what he was forced to put up with as an employee of miserly masters.
Anyway, folks! If you don’t know the St Matthew Passion, listen to Richter. If you know it well enough to be interested in hearing new interpretations, try Klemperer and/or Mengelberg. And never forget that this incomparably wonderful music tells the story of the loving God who was betrayed, mocked, beaten and spat upon. It’s not just a collection of pretty tunes!