As a general rule, and provided I have access to the text and
a translation, I prefer to hear a vocal work in the original
language set by the composer. That’s because the original
language lets us hear the vowel sounds and the word underlay
that the composer envisaged. However, I readily acknowledge that
there’s a strong argument for hearing pieces in the vernacular
so that communication with the listener is direct and immediate.
That’s especially true of works such as the Bach Passions
where a story is being narrated. The trouble is that with sacred
works especially all too often one encounters a translation that’s
poor, old fashioned - or both!
It’s good to report, therefore, that this present performance
of Bach’s profound meditation on and narrative of the Passion
Gospel according to St Matthew is given in a new English translation
that strikes me as being faithful and felicitous. That this translation
should have been used for this performance doesn’t really
surprise me because Jeffrey Skidmore has a long established and
strong reputation for musical scholarship and he’s put
that scholarship to practical use in the performances that he’s
given with his Ex Cathedra choir since founding the ensemble
forty years ago. So he’d be very unlikely to give a period
performance of Bach but hobble it with a poor or unidiomatic
translation. Indeed, it may be significant that when he directs
Ex Cathedra’s traditional Good Friday performance of one
of the Bach Passions in 2010 he’ll be performing the St.
John Passion but giving it in German; perhaps there is not yet
an English translation that he thinks is suitable. Incidentally,
throughout this review, when referring to individual movements
in the score I’ll use the English titles but will also
supply the number of the movement to assist with identification
for those who may be more familiar with the German text.
I said that this is a period performance. That extends to the
instruments used in the orchestra. It extends also to the tempi.
So much of Bach’s music is founded in dance and throughout
this performance one finds choruses and arias taken at a fluent
pace. The recitatives too are nicely paced so that they come
across, as they should, as a natural narrative - though there’s
appropriate expression too. I also like the natural way in which
Skidmore paces and phrases the chorales.
Some of the tempi may prove controversial, however, and I wonder
if it was coincidental that the tempi with which I found myself
taking issue all occurred towards the end of the work. The wonderful
alto aria ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me’ (No. 39) is just
a bit too brisk for my taste. The flow of the music under Jeffrey
Skidmore’s direction is undeniable - and welcome - but
the piece just seems too quick; the pizzicato
gives the game away. Mark Chambers sings well enough but at this
pace there’s insufficient reflection for my taste and I
don’t feel the soloist is able to invest the music with
any emotional depth. It’s instructive to note that here
the aria is dispatched in just 5:38; on the recording by Sir
John Eliot Gardiner - no slouch himself - the piece lasts 6:43.
A little further on the bass aria ‘Give. O give me back
my Saviour’ (42) is taken at a speed which just robs it
of emotional weight. The soloist (James Birchall) sings well
enough, though some of his passagework sounds rushed while the
violin obbligato is, frankly, a scramble.
I have similar reservations about the speeds of one or two more
arias and, indeed, would have liked more breadth in the final
chorus. But I must at once add, by way of balance, that the pacing
of most of the score seems to me to be perfectly sensible and
musical. More than that, Skidmore’s pacing of the dramatic
sections such as the arrest of Jesus, the scenes before the High
Priest and Pilate and the Crucifixion itself are assured, stylish
and intelligent. I also like very much the way in which he paces
and shapes the chorales. These never drag but they are delivered
in such a way as to provide reflective oases - gathering points,
if you will - along the way.
And in these chorales - and in the choruses too, Skidmore is
well served by the Ex Cathedra singers. Each choir comprises
nine sopranos, six altos (male and female), and five each of
tenors and basses. The singing is well tuned, flexible and the
tone has excellent body. And above all I relished the commitment
the choir brings to the work. There’s huge energy, for
example, at ‘Have lightnings and thunders forgotten their
fury?’ (27) and real venom in the way they sing the name ‘Barabbas’ and
then ‘Have him crucified!’ (45). Anyone coming to
this recording will have no cause to complain about the quality
of the choral singing and the orchestral accompaniment is on
a comparable level.
There are no Big Name soloists: that’s not the Ex Cathedra
way. But in general the standard of the solo singing is very
good. The contributions of both sopranos - Grace Davidson and
Natalie Clifton-Griffith - provide much pleasure. The latter
has a silvery voice and her delivery is poised in ‘Break
in grief’ (6). I admired Miss Davidson’s flowing
passagework in ‘Jesus, Saviour, I am yours’ (13).
Later on she gives a most affecting account of ‘For love
my Saviour now is dying’ (49), catching well the tender
grief in the music and aided by sympathetic pacing by the conductor.
I’m not quite so convinced by the alto soloists. Matthew
Venner’s voice seems a little thin, for example in ‘’If
my weeping’ (52). But more seriously I don’t feel
that he gets underneath the notes very much to the sentiments
below. His colleague, Mark Chambers, is more probing in the recitative ‘Ah,
Golgotha!’ (59) and if in the aria that immediately follows
he doesn’t seem to get below the surface of the music I
think that’s more down to the brisk tempo that’s
set; a speed that makes the accompaniment seem almost jaunty.
There are two good basses in Choir I in the shape of Eamonn Dougan
and Greg Skidmore. The former sings Jesus and makes a good job
of the role. Not every bass who takes this part manages to avoid
sounding sanctimonious but Dougan avoids that trap with ease,
singing with dignity and presence. Greg Skidmore - no relation
to the conductor - sings with intelligence. I thought I detected
a few small throaty catches in the voice - perhaps due to fatigue?
- in ‘Come healing cross’ (57) but these don’t
detract from the performance.
Inevitably the spotlight chiefly falls on The Evangelist and
Jeremy Budd makes a very favourable impression. His diction is
crystal clear - as is the case with everyone else - and he sings
Bach’s demanding recitatives and some of the arias with
fine feeling and real authority. His tone is plangent when required
and has a good clean ring to it. Above all he’s a compelling
narrator, telling the story clearly and with just the right amount
of dramatic fervour. In short, he draws the listeners in and
involves us in the story. I enjoyed his singing very much.
The performance is conveyed in good, clear sound in which the
left/right division between Choirs I and II is reported with
clarity. The audience is commendably unobtrusive and though applause
has been retained at the very end - rightly, in my view - it
begins after a suitable pause.
The well-produced booklet contains a good note by Jeffrey Skidmore
and the full English text though, to be honest, this is almost
superfluous since the soloists and the chorus all enunciate the
words very clearly.
I enjoyed this very much. There can be drawbacks to live performances
that are perpetuated on disc but this is a very successful and
involving performance that conveys the essence of Bach’s
masterpiece very well indeed. If you insist on Bach in German
or on the presence of stellar soloists you’ll probably
pass this recording by but I think that would be a grave mistake
for it has much to offer. In its stylistic approach and the application
of proper scholarship it’s very faithful, I think, to Bach’s