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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion

Eric Greene, tenor, Evangelist
Gordon Clinton, bass baritone, Jesus
Pauline Brockless, soprano
Nancy Evans, mezzo-soprano
Wilfred Brown, tenor
John Carol Case, bass-baritone
Eric Gritton, piano continuo
William Cole, organ continuo
Leith Hill Musical Festival Chorus and Orchestra
David Martin and Vera Kantrovitch, leaders
Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor
Recorded Dorking Halls 5 March 1958
PEARL GEMS 0079 [2 CDs 151’14]


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It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this recording. Taped in 1958 five months before Vaughan Williams’ death, it preserves a performance given at that year’s Leith Hill Festival of a work he had conducted there since 1931. The recording was made by Christopher Finzi and Noel Taylor and is of perfectly acceptable quality - clear, unobtrusive, not expansive but given the semi-amateur circumstances, good. Certainly it enshrines a relatively unusual musical occurrence – affording us the experience of hearing one composer conducting the work of another. More than that it incarnates a performance practice and a personal response to Bach both profoundly of its time and yet movingly transcendent of stylistic change.

Of course there are necessary points to note. Vaughan Williams cut a dozen numbers, including four arias; the edition used is the Elgar-Atkins, sung in English; the keyboard continuo comprises organ and piano; the chorus is very large. The booklet notes – comprehensive and thoughtful, by Jerrold Northrop Moore – quote Vaughan Williams’ views on the practicalities of modern orchestral resources and their implementation as being, in a sense, a tribute to Bach himself - as well as outlining his rationale for the exclusion of certain numbers. He also spoke of it being wrong to include everything for the sake of "mechanical completeness." Other small but telling details emerge; how Vaughan Williams insisted the audience stand for the Last Supper Scene and, whilst his beat was imprecise, how he stared at the musicians over the top of his glasses.

The performance itself is extraordinary. Firmly accented, the choral singing is generally massive and slow with the recitatives equally slow in tempo. Rallentandos abound, as do accelerandos to heighten dramatic impulse. The result is not heaviness and ponderousness but an organic and fiercely dramatic realisation of the meaning of the score. And one I have to say I found intensely moving. It needs to be noted nevertheless that the Dorking Halls’ acoustic doesn’t flatter the soloists – clear it might be but there’s no comforting cushion around the voices. Eric Greene is the Evangelist - textually accurate with, despite the slowness of his recitatives, a remarkable instinct and understanding of the music’s contours. What can’t be denied is that by this stage of his career his voice – especially unaided by the generally unsympathetic acoustic – was coming under very considerable strain. He is very sorely tried at the top of his compass in Now when Jesus, as, it must be admitted, elsewhere. Wilfred Brown employs his very distinctive musical intelligence in his arias – listen especially to his softened tone rising and falling in O grief! that bows and to his singing of I would beside my Lord with the sinuous oboe line behind him. Nancy Evans is precise in articulation of consonants in Break in grief – attractive but not overwhelming. The choir itself is excellently trained, sibilants precisely enunciated, reflective, reverential or passionately involved in the drama it is itself evoking. Under Vaughan Williams’ direction the work emerges as an intensely dramatic and fluid one, a performance powerfully responsive to the text and to the dictates of its internal and external meaning. It is a remarkable document and I strongly urge you to hear it.

Jonathan Woolf

 


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