There must be at least 50 elderly Austrians who have been kept alive by the hope of hearing this performance again before they died. After all, the performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the 1950 International Bach Festival still carries an enormous reputation in certain circles. The singers were all said to be among the best of the early postwar period and Kathleen Ferrier was at the peak of her tragically short career. And even his detractors had to admit that in the immediate postwar period Herbert von Karajan was at his least narcissistic when he was feeling slightly chastened by having picked the losing side and slightly nervous that someone might hold his choice against him. Those 50 Austrians must be gratified that Andante has reissued the performance and thrilled with the excellence of Andante's digital remastering and with the richness of their packaging.
But even they must acknowledge that this is an embarrassingly awful performance. Karajan's tempos are slow and unsteady, intensely idiosyncratic and stultifyingly soporific. Of the singers, only Irmgard Seefried comes off well, while Kathleen Ferrier sounds tired and dreary. The men are wobbly at the start and exhausted at the end. The Vienna Symphony's playing is sloppy and turgid and the singing of the Vienna Singverein is passable, but at Karajan's bloated tempos, they are worn out before the end of the first part. Andante's digital remastering may do all that can be done with the original radio sound, but the amount of noise and coughing is distracting.