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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
St. Matthew Passion BWV 244

Evangelist - Rogers Covey Crump (tenor)
Jesus - Michael George (bass)
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Martyn Hill (tenor)
David Thomas (bass)
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge
The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge (soprano in ripieno)
The Brandenburg Consort (leader, Roy Goodman)/Stephen Cleobury
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99676 [3CDs 67.14+40.52+52.26]

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 performance.

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 preferences.

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.

Robert Hugill



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