Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 1750)
St. Matthew Passion (1725) [160.32]
Evangelist Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor); Jesus Michael George (bass); Emma Kirkby (soprano); Michael Chance (alto); Martyn Hill (tenor); David Thomas (bass)
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge
The Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge
Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 1994, Kings College Chapel.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94126 [3 CDs: 67.14 + 40.52 + 52.26; DVD: 165.00]

This Brilliant Classics boxed set is rather short on the details of the origins of the recording. It seems to be the one previously issued on Regis in 1994 and reviewed by Kirk McElhearn here. On paper this looks rather a tempting recording with quite an impressive and distinguished cast. This isn't the only record that the Choir of King's College has made. Notably they featured on Nicholas Harnoncourt's first recording of the Passion.

Rogers Covey-Crump sings the Evangelist, apparently his only recording of the role, though he has also recorded the Evangelist in the St. John Passion. Here he sings beautifully mellifluously, with quite a light tone and no sense of strain. At times of high drama, such as when the veil of the temple is rent, he seems to strain to fill the drama of the part. In fact, though Covey-Crump sounds beautiful, he does not delve too deep into the role. A performance of the Passion can be very much influenced by the Evangelist and here the drama seems to take second place to the music-making.

Michael George's Christus has noble roots, but he is recorded quite closely so that his vibrato lends a feeling of instability. This means that no matter how hard he works his performance is compromised by this instability.

The four soloists fit in with Covey-Crump's style and presumably Stephen Cleobury's intentions; drama is low, but musical values are high. Emma Kirkby is lovely in the soprano solos, but more than a trifle cool; Aus liebe is simply lovely. Michael Chance sings the alto solos with a feeling for the drama. Unfortunately when he puts his voice under pressure it does tend to fray. Martyn Hill suffers from similar problems to Michael George; his voice is recorded in such a way that his vibrato introduces another element of instability. David Thomas is dignified, nicely grainy but similarly lacking in drama. Michael Chance apart, you don't really feel that the soloists are affected by the events of the passion - the drama isn't real to them.

The CD box refers only to the Choir of King's College, but the booklet also mentions the Choir of Jesus College, so I am unclear whether the two choirs sing in the whole recording or whether Jesus College simply provided the ripieno choir for the major choruses. Though eschewing anything like one singer to a part, the performance is not massive. The choir and the Brandenburg Consort provide quite a swift, light account. In fact, at times it feels that they skate over things a little too much. The opening chorus, for instance, would benefit from a degree more depth and weight.

The choir's performance is technically brilliant, with some nice detailing but like much else on the disc, they rather lack drama. This must be balanced with the musicality and sheer beauty of the performance.

The booklet comes with just a track-listing, though you can download the text from the Brilliant web-site. The box also comes with a DVD of the performance. Curiously, the box states that they are performing the 1725 version, one that doesn't exist. They certainly do not seem to be performing Bach's first version of the piece. I was unable to review the DVD of the performance as the DVD in my boxed set proved to be the King's College performance of Handel's Messiah.

This was rather a disappointment. It certainly is not a recording which I would recommend as a library choice. Though it lacks a feel for the drama of Bach's passion, there are plenty of lovely individual elements. Intelligently sung and nicely modulated, you can put the disc on and enjoy the moment but these moments just do not build up into anything greater. At Brilliant's prices you can afford to buy it and place it next to your Passion of choice.

Robert Hugill

Intelligently sung and nicely modulated, you can put the disc on and enjoy the moment but these moments just do not build up into anything greater.