Bach's St Matthew Passion has often been called the greatest western musical work ever written. Don't expect this reviewer to disagree - it never fails to move me, and to delight me by its beautiful and often painful melodies. First performed on Good Friday 1727, it is one of Bach's most complex vocal works, calling for two choirs and two orchestras, and containing some of his most demanding arias. Performed often, since Felix Mendelssohn "rediscovered" it in 1829 (performing a partial version of the work), the St Matthew Passion was largely responsible for the Bach revival of the 19th century.
The work itself follows the text of the Passion according to St Matthew, in a series of choral movements, arias and recitatives. This is a long work - usually running around 2.30 to 3 hours, depending on the tempi chosen. It can be very tiring to perform, especially for the soloists, who are up against some difficult challenges in the arias.
The market is full of great recordings of the St Matthew Passion, from classics by Richter and Leonhardt, to more recent recordings, such as the second version recently released by both Herreweghe and Harnoncourt, as well as the recording by Suzuki. (One recording to look forward to is the upcoming release by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players, which should be out in 2002 or 2003. Their recent tour of this work showed a magnificent mastery of the scope of the passion through the use of a very small ensemble.)
Evangelist, Rogers Covey-Crump is not totally convincing - it is difficult to measure up to the benchmark of the magnificent Peter Schreier, who is undoubtedly the perfect voice for the part (or, at least, whose voice has become more or less identified with it). His diction sounds a bit unsteady, and his voice seems just a bit too laid back for this central part.
Alto, Michael Chance has a fine voice, but uses a bit too much vibrato at times, which tends to distract from the melody - calling attention to itself. Yet his vibrato is unequal - at times, it is intrusive, and other times (even within the same aria) it is subtle.
Curiously, Emma Kirkby, who does not often overuse vibrato, does so here. Her voice is wonderful, as usual, but one may question this vibrato which tends to stand out. However, in the heart-rending aria Erbame dich for soprano and violin obbligato, she is more restrained, and is truly magnificent. Yet, it is hard to compare her version to the near-perfect performance by René Jacobs on the Gustav Leonhardt recording of 1989, or Robin Blaze's crystalline performance on the Maasaki Suzuki recording. (Or even alto Michael Chance, present on this recording, who was acclaimed for his performance of this aria in the recent recording by John Eliot Gardiner.)
Michael Chance is indeed fine, here, and the aria Können Tränen meine Wangen is excellent. Yet, again, a shade less vibrato would have been nice.
The orchestra performs admirably, maintaining the correct level of transparency, and staying sufficiently in the background when necessary - such as during the arias - and being more present in the instrumental passages.
The recording is good, but is spatially a bit flat - one can distinguish the two choirs and two orchestras fairly well, but there is a lack of overall depth. Also, the soloists are spread out across the space, which can be a bit disconcerting, but this does reproduce the sound of a live performance, where they are not all located together.
All in all, this is a very good recording, but not excellent. With the many other fine recordings available, this one is not at the top of the list. However, given its low price, it is certainly great value - all of the performers are competent, and the choir is especially good.
A solid performance of one of the greatest works of western music. While not one of the best, its low price makes it a great value