Bach-Matthaus-Passion: Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (DVD-Audio) (2000) (NTSC)

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Released 22-Oct-2002

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Music Gallery-Bach & Leipzig
Gallery-Photo-The Artists
Featurette-Restoring Bach
Audio-Only Track-Also Available
Rating ?
Year Of Production 2000
Running Time 162:09
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By None Given

Warner Vision
Starring Bernarda Fink
Elisabeth von Magnus
Dorothea Roschmann
Christine Schafer
Matthias Goeme
Dietrich Henschel
Christoph Pregardien
Michael Schade
Markus Schafer
Oliver Widmer
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Concentus Musicus Wien
Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Case DVD-Audio Jewel
RPI $32.95 Music Johann Sebastian Bach

Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Audio MLP 96/24 5.1
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    It would be fair to say that the general quality of the classical music releases on DVD-Audio hitherto reviewed has not been exactly distinguished. Indeed, in general I would go a lot further and say the general quality has been mediocre at best, with plenty to be desired in the quality of the performances. Not so with the current release which would rank, on the face of it, as one of the best performances of classical music yet to appear on DVD-Audio. Just how good? Well, the performance in its CD incarnation walked away with the prestigious Gramophone Award in 2001 for Best Baroque Vocal.

    The Baroque period in music produced some of the greatest composers and some of the greatest musical compositions the world has ever heard. At the pinnacle of those great composers was the rather prolific Johann Sebastian Bach. His staggering output covered just about every facet of music then known and invented a few new ones. Most of what he wrote was truly worthwhile and few classical music buffs would not be aware of at least his major works. Indeed, given the work of such bands as Sky, more than a few popular music fans have been exposed to some of his better known works. In two areas however, he reigned virtually supreme for years - organ music and his church music, notably his stupendous collection of cantatas, his oratorios and other choral music. Amongst the latter, his St Matthew Passion would rank as one of his great achievements. Over the years there have been many great recordings of the work, and amongst those in my CD collection are a superb recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (my favourite recording), a 1962 recording by Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia Choir and Orchestra and the 1958 recording by Karl Richter (his 1979 recording is apparently even better but alas not in my collection). It is into this exalted company that this more recent recording arrives, although it has closer company with the original instrument version of Sir John Eliot Gardiner than the other versions. It is by no means the first recording that Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made of the work, and none of them has been anything but great.

    If you head over to the Gramophone web site, their brief spiel on this recording is interesting reading: "there have been many distinguished recordings of Bach's masterpiece over the past fifty years ... but few have been so satisfying on virtually every count as this one". Or you could take a gander at what the Penguin Guide To Compact Discs 2002 Edition has to say: "Harnoncourt's rhythmic control may not be as resilient as some, but his is a consistently imaginative approach, giving concentration and fine detail over the great span of this masterpiece, making this a leading contender among the many rival versions, recorded in clear, open sound". Whilst I would not hold out the current version to be better than my favoured version by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, it is nonetheless an impressive performance that has plenty to commend it.

    Taking a slightly more measured approach than that of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the result is certainly not lacking in gravitas and the singing is wonderful stuff. Clearly thirty years of study of this masterpiece has not been lost on Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the change in his approach over those years demonstrates how much change has been wrought by the original instruments brigade (of which Harnoncourt has been at the forefront for that time and of which Gardiner is one of its greatest exponents). However, I have to say that the style of the performance is lacking the sort of joy that I tend to prefer in this music.

    Sometimes I do ponder why certain recordings achieve the ilk of Gramophone Awards, and this is another of those instances. The more I listened to the recording, the more boring it sounded. I would certainly not rank it as the greatest St Matthew Passion ever recorded, for it is not the best that I have heard. However, it is a good recording and if you have never heard this great work before, then this is well worth a listen. Amongst the average collection of classical recordings so far available in the format, this ranks way better than the pack. If you love baroque vocal music, this is a worthwhile purchase.

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Transfer Quality


   Apart from the featurette in the extras package, there is no video per se on the disc. Everything basically comprises comprises NTSC menus and stills. These are generally clear and quite sharp, and make rather apt backgrounds to the music.


    According to the slick cover, there are three soundtracks on this disc being a DVD-Audio only MLP 96 kHz/24 bit 5.1 soundtrack, a DVD-Audio only MLP 96 kHz/24 bit 2.0 soundtrack and a DVD-Video compatible Dolby Digital 5.1 448 kb/s soundtrack. This seems to be incorrect as I can find no way to access any MLP 96 kHz/24 bit 2.0 soundtrack. As usual, I listened to the 5.1 soundtracks in their entirety.

    The DVD-Audio compatible MLP 5.1 soundtrack is rather different to what we expect on a popular album. The rear surround channels are quite sparingly used, being generally utilized to recreate the ambience of the recording venue (the Jesuit Church in Vienna) with little in the way of vocal or instrumental activity. This is not the first time I have heard this sort of use in classical recordings and it is reasonably effective. Nonetheless, I would certainly have preferred a little more from the rear channels. The whole focus of the soundtrack is the front three channels, and these are very effective. There is nice detail and definition in the vocals, whilst the instrumental accompaniment is very effective. The result is not exactly an encompassing soundtrack but it does give the feel of sitting somewhere down the middle of the church listening to the music. The only real complaint with the soundtrack is that one of the bass singers is much more prominent in the overall mix, giving a slightly unnatural feel to the soundtrack as a result. The background whilst this soundtrack is playing is a total of forty stills (twenty for each of the two parts) showing various pages from the autograph score of 1736. The only problem is that at each chapter change point, the stills resume at the opening cover.

    The DVD-Video compatible Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is another good effort, too. It is slightly more dynamic than the MLP soundtrack, but has significantly less rear surround activity. Detail is still very good and the vocals seem to have a lot more body to them here. The modicum of additional bass, even though not that much, seems to work quite well. The soundscape is a little more frontal than the recording venue would probably have been like, and certainly you get less of a feel of being present at a performance, but it is still an easy soundtrack to listen to. Unlike the nice backgrounds for the MLP soundtrack, all you get here is a chapter listing to look at.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    An excellent twenty eight page effort, even if it misses out on a full libretto (available online at apparently).

Gallery - Bach & Leipzig

    Ten good quality stills showing contemporary drawings of places associated with the maestro.

Gallery - Photo - The Artists (1:00)

    Self running, this contains sixteen photos of the various major artists involved in the recording, presented in a non-16x9 enhanced full frame format.

Featurette - Restoring Bach (7:50)

    Thousands upon thousands of pages of original manuscript reside in the archives in Berlin. This collection contains the original manuscripts for some of the most important music ever written - and it is all decaying due to the ink that Johann Sebastian Bach used. As a result, the past few years has seen a massive undertaking to restore the damaged manuscripts and preserve them for the future. This all-too-brief featurette documents the problem and the processes involved in the restoration. One of the most interesting featurettes I have ever seen on any DVD. Presented in a full frame format, which is not 16x9 enhanced, it comes with a German Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and English subtitles.

Audio Only Track - Also Available

    The usual piece of promotional advertising that we have come to expect on Teldec DVD-Audio releases.


R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This DVD-Audio is identical in content and format around the world.


    In the final analysis, I found this recording to be a little too slow for my taste and on several occasions I found myself nodding off to sleep. That is not a good sign for any performance! However, the performance certainly has merit and is worthwhile investigating. I like the sound engineering in general but just wish that there was a little more presence in the rear channels. The extras are well worthwhile.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Sunday, December 29, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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