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Image Entertainment presents
St. Matthew Passion (1990)

"My father, if possible, allow this cup to pass from me. But not as I will, rather as thou wilt."
- Jesus (Hermann Prey)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: December 04, 2002

Stars: Claes Hakon Ahnsjo, Hermann Prey, Margaret Marshall, Anton Scharinger, Jard van Nes, Aldo Baldin
Other Stars: Bach Collegium Muenchen, Enoch zu Guttenberg, conductor
Director: Peter Schulze-Rohr

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:04m:15s
Release Date: November 19, 2002
UPC: 014381929027
Genre: classical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A+A-A- D

DVD Review

Although Bach frequently wrote for soloists or small chamber ensembles, he could, when appropriate, break out all of the stops. That is certainly the case with one of his surviving passion oratoria, the St. Matthew Passion. This piece requires eight solo voices, a double chorus and a double orchestra, making it one of the largest ensemble pieces of its period.

As the title implies, the piece is based on the passion story as contained in the Gospel according to Matthew. The passion covers roughly chapters 26 and 27, speaking of hope for the resurrection but stopping short. The text proper is chanted in recitative by The Evangelist (tenor Claes Hakon Ahnsjo) with the words of Jesus being sung by noted baritone Hermann Prey. Interspersed among these bits are arias and choruses that comment on the story and put it into a vernacular perspective.

The largeness of the ensemble notwithstanding, many of the most affecting segments are the most intimate, such as the alto aria 'Buss und Reu,' with its lovely flute duet. Similarly, another aria set to an oboe duet makes excellent use of the plaintive quality of that double-reed instrument. One of the oboists is quite rigid, and the other almost comically flamboyant in his movement during this piece, lending some visual entertainment to the proceedings. Also notable is an ominous yet quiet ascending figure underlying Peter's denial, a tangible portent of doom.

Equally effective is the bass aria 'Komm suesses Kreuz,' with its accompaniment by continuo and the archaic viola da gamba. The violin solo accompanying the alto on 'Embarme dich' is similarly utterly gorgeous and heart-rending. However, the violin soloist on the bass aria 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder' seems to be playing with some other ensemble; his playing is just enough off-kilter to be extremely odd sounding.

But that's about the only shortcoming of this performance. The two choruses accurately make their way through the elaborate double-fugues that Bach challenges them with, and the orchestra is capable of a big, rich and precise sound when Bach calls for it. The vocal soloists all acquit themselves well without being flashy about their performances. The sound is both big and intimate, as appropriate, and profoundly moving, regardless of one's theological leanings. The visuals are a bit lacking, with cuts from the orchestra to a wooden panel of Jesus being beaten, apparently one of a set of stations of the cross. A bit more visual variety would have been welcome.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture, shot at the Klosterkirche Alpirsbach, looks terrific. You'd never guess this was in front of a live audience, because they're absolutely silent and the lighting is calibrated for filming, not for the benefit of the live audience. The orchestra, soloists and chorus all show up beautifully, and the transfer has a tremendous amount of detail. Texture is so clear that one can discern when the lapels of tuxedos are made of a different material, which is seldom possible in a live performance. Color is excellent as well; soprano Margaret Marshall's spangled blue dress is jaw-dropping in its explosion of color on the screen. There is on occasion moderate aliasing visible on the violin bows, probably due to the compression limitations of a three-plus-hour program on a single disc. But this looks terrific aside from these slight limitations.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Germanyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks are presented. However, there's not a great deal of difference between the two, beyond a slightly broader soundstage to the 5.1 track. Oddly, the vocals of the soloists come from all speakers, leading to the sensation of being right amongst them in the orchestra. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but fair warning for those who dislike this effect. The only directionality that I noticed was that the organ seems to come primarily from the surrounds. It's quite unobtrusive, and often needs to be listened for specifically in order to be conscious that the organ is present at all, a delicate blending that neither gives it too prominent a place nor disregards it completely. Hiss is nominal and seems to be entirely attributable to the ambient sound of the church where the piece is being performed. Again, happily, the audience behaves itself and neither coughs nor rattles paper nor applauds noisily.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 98 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 96 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:30m:06s

Extras Review: As usual for classical music DVDs, there are no extras. The chaptering is extremely generous with more stops (98) than I've ever seen on a single disc. Every conceivable break in the score is chaptered for easy access, and there is also a paper insert listing the stops. Subtitles are removable. This is all very welcome and commendable but there are still no significant extras. A couple of screens giving the history of the piece or a short bio of J.S. Bach would make this much easier to give an unqualified recommendation. But the wealth of chapter stops raises it above the usual grade for such an extra-free disc.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

One of J.S. Bach's most towering works, in an near-flawless performance. The transfer is excellent, though the 5.1 sound places one in the middle of the orchestra. Recommended for any classical music library.


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