When J.S.Bach performed the St. Matthew Passion
on Good Friday in Leipzig, how many performers did he have? More
particularly how many singers did he have? Much academic ink has
been spilt over this issue. Bach routinely performed music at
St. Thomas's Church with tiny forces, and that on an ordinary
Sunday. One voice to a part was probably commonplace. He would
certainly not have been surprised at a performance like that on
the recent recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort,
which uses just eight singers. But the Good Friday Passion was
a special event in the musical calendar and prefixed by a music-free
Lent, which would have given performers additional time to rehearse,
so some commentators argue that these performances encompassed
not just Bach's existing choir, but past pupils coming back to
join them. We shall probably never know, as there is frustratingly
little detail about the early performances of these seminal works.
Our performance tradition for Bach's Passions
dates from the 19th century when Mendelssohn revived
the work. Since then it has been shoe-horned into the standard
oratorio line-up which developed in the 19th century,
with four soloists (plus Evangelist and Jesus), large choir and
orchestra. The same forces could, effectively, perform everything
from Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion to Beethoven's Ninth
Symphony, Elijah and the Verdi Requiem. The last twenty years
have seen this monolithic oratorio edifice being dismantled as
we come to understand the differences in performance practice
in the works … even Elijah is starting to gain its eight soloists.
The St. Matthew Passion is designed to be performed
by double forces, eight soloists, double choir and double orchestra.
For his final version of the work, Bach even split the continuo
into two, so that there were consistently two different performance
groups. This recording of the St. Matthew Passion is a very traditional
one. It uses a nineteenth century line-up with just four soloists
plus Evangelist and Jesus and though the choir is accompanied
by the Brandenburg Consort, playing on original instruments, the
recording has a very well upholstered sound. If Bach was prone
to fits of fantasy as he lay in bed at night after a taxing day
rehearsing and performing the work with inadequate forces, then
he may well have imagined this sort of well-upholstered performance
based, perhaps, on forces at court. It could be argued that this
type of performance is the fulfilment of this sort of supposition.
But we don't know, and it could just as well be that Bach would
have been horrified at the 'overblown' nature of the performance
compared to his lean Leipzig forces, but I doubt it. All we can
do is take the performance and judge it on its own merits.
The disc's primary advantage is the presence
of the choir of King's College, Cambridge. I love the sound that
this type of choir makes in this music, whether it is authentic
or not. (Bach's choir used teenage boy altos rather than counter-tenors).
They do sound glorious, from their opening moments in the very
first, great chorus. But as I listened to the performance more,
doubts began to creep in. It may be a fault of the recording process,
but I felt that the boys lack presence and I began to wish that
I were listening to a choir with a more continental sound. And
then there is the issue of diction. Performing and recording regularly
in an acoustic like King's cannot help, but the choir's German
diction leaves something to be desired. The soloists, particularly
Rogers Covey-Crump's wonderful high tenor Evangelist, have exemplary
diction which rather puts the choir in the shade. But when all
is said and done, King's still has that magical King's sound and
it is here in the service of one of Bach's greatest works.
John Eliot Gardiner has recorded the work for
Archiv with his mixed voice Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque
Soloists with an array of fine soloists. Despite the differences
in type of choir it is a comparable recording to this one. Both
conductors even manage to come up with performances of a similar
duration, though their attitude to the different movements varies
and Gardiner is probably rather more interventionist. Also Gardiner
has far more separation between his two choirs, which makes the
double choruses far more effective.
On this recording, Michael George portrays Jesus
with a rather grainy voice and a significant amount of vibrato
which seemed entirely out of keeping with the performance. I found
his inability to deliver a true legato frankly disappointing,
but maybe he is simply on the wrong recording. Whereas Andreas
Schmidt, with Gardiner, is far more impressive and delivers the
role with a fine legato.
Emma Kirkby sings the soprano solos limpidly
and purely. Technically brilliant, I did think that she was sometimes
a little on the cool side but this is preferable to an over-blown
19th century manner. John Eliot Gardiner shares the
soprano solos between Ann Monoyios and Barbara Bonney and both
of them perform with style. Monoyios's "Blute nur, du liebe Herz"
is tenderly fragile but delivered with rather more vibrato than
Kirkby, and she fails to match Kirkby's bell-like clarity. In
"Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben", though Monoyios is beautiful,
she lacks Kirkby's clarity and no-one can match Kirkby's spine-tingling
first entry in this aria.
Michael Chance sings the alto solos with delicacy,
but his tone becomes a bit steely in the upper register, hinting
that the tessitura may not be ideal for him. John Eliot Gardiner
shares the alto solos between Anne Sofie von Otter and Michael
Chance, giving Chance "Erbarme dich". Comparing Chance's two performances
of this aria, Gardiner's speed is slower and somehow Chance seems
at his best for Gardiner, delivering the aria with a limpid purity
that is hard to match. For the remaining alto arias, von Otter
often sings them with a rather darker tone than Chance and she
does sound more comfortable with the tessitura, giving thoughtful,
shapely and moving performances. She has a fine sense of line
(something that Chance does not always achieve). But in "Können
Tränen meiner Wangen" it is Chance who, with a sense of shape
and style, gives the more affecting performance.
In the moving duet, "So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen",
Gardiner is much slower than Cleobury and the Monteverdi choir's
interruptions are far less violent those of King's. This slower
speed makes for a more moving performance, but Barbara Bonney
and Michael Chance find it difficult to sustain. Whereas, at Cleobury's
faster speed, Kirkby and Chance deliver an affectingly shaped
Tenor Martyn Hill is frankly disappointing. Singing
with a large bright voice and not a little vibrato, his passage
work is rather effortful and he seemed out of place on this recording.
For Gardiner, Howard Crook delivers the tenor arias matchlessly,
with an admirable feeling for line.
Bass David Thomas is a fine stylist but he does
not seem to be on the best of form on this recording. He makes
an impressively commanding bass soloist. But is a little too inclined
to bluster and smudge his passage work in the faster numbers.
Whereas for John Eliot Gardiner, Olaf Bär sings his solos
with a better feeling for legato and his soft-grained voice suits
the music perfectly. Bär shares the solos with Cornelius
Hauptman who sings rather emphatically in a manner not dissimilar
to David Thomas's
The smaller solos are taken by various unnamed
soloists, presumably from the King's Choir. Never less than adequate,
they do sometimes fail to completely convince.
Cleobury and Gardiner seem to show a differing
attitude to the chorales. Under Cleobury, King's sing the chorales
in a vigorous, four-square manner as if the congregation were
joining in (or we were going to join in at home) Whereas Gardiner
takes a more musical approach, treating the chorales as choral
contributions to be shaped. Both attitudes are valid and, like
much on these recordings, which you prefer depends on your personal
The Brandenburg Consort play with élan
and give the music just the right lift when necessary. They contribute
a fine array of soloists in the obbligato parts for the arias.
There are the occasional smudged patches in the texture that suggest
that there was not quite as much studio time as would be desirable.
This is a fine recording though ultimately I
do not think that it measures up to the achievement of Gardiner
and his forces. For many people, though, the King's forces and
Emma Kirkby, with Michael Chance doing all the alto solos, will
prove a willing combination. And at super budget price, you cannot
go far wrong. There is a complete libretto in German.