Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion BWV 244
Sung in English (translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell)
Grace Davidson (soprano I); Natalie Clifton-Griffith (soprano II); Mark Chambers (alto I); Matthew Venner (alto II); Jeremy Budd (Evangelist and tenor I); Christopher Watson (tenor II); Eamonn Dougan (Jesus and bass I); Greg Skidmore (Pilate and bass I); James Birchall (bass II); Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 10 April 2009 (Good Friday)
English text included
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100007 [79:58 + 77:45]

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 bass rather 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 genius.

John Quinn