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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion, BWV244b (1727) [153:33]
Charles Daniels (tenor) – Evangelist; Peter Harvey (bass 1) – Christus; Bethany Seymour (soprano 1); Sally Bruce Payne (alto 1); Joseph Cornwell (tenor 1) – Judas, High Priest; Helen Neeves (soprano 2); Nancy Cole (alto 2) – False Witness; Julian Podger (tenor 2) – False Witness; Matthew Brook (bass 2)
Yorkshire Baroque Soloists/Peter Seymour (harpsichord)
rec. 2013, National Centre for Early Music, York
German text and English translation included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD385 [75:13 + 78:20]

It’s said that you wait a long time for a bus and then two – or more – come along together. That cliché came to mind here because it’s only a matter of weeks since I considered a recording of the 1727 version of the St Matthew Passion, directed by Richard Egarr, and now, hot on its heels, comes another one from Peter Seymour. Back in 2012 I reviewed a performance by Seymour and the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists of the St. John Passion. That recording had much to commend it so I was interested to hear his account of the St Matthew. Two soloists – Charles Daniel and Bethany Seymour - are common to both recordings but otherwise Seymour has refreshed his soloist team considerably – including one particularly significant addition in the shape of Peter Harvey. He’s also moved to a different recording location. The earlier recording was set down in the modern Jack Lyons Concert Hall at York University – a venue that I remember well from many years back. This new recording has been made in a venue that I don’t know: the National Centre for Early Music which is housed in the converted church of St. Margaret’s, York.

On the face of it, Seymour and Egarr have used the same version of the St Matthew Passion However, there are some differences between the music that they present which probably stem from the fact that the Seymour recording uses a new edition of the score, which I suspect is by Seymour himself. Features that the two recordings have in common include the replacement by a simple chorale of the chorus ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß’ with which Bach closed Part I when he revised the score in 1736. That’s a change I regret. Another difference between the 1727 and 1736 versions is that no viola da gamba is used in the earlier score and that means that in the aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ the obbligato is played instead on a lute; I’ve come to prefer that 1727 scoring very strongly. Listeners will also notice that the aria ‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin’ is allotted to a bass soloist in 1727 whereas the more familiar 1736 score gives it to an alto. One other important change that Egarr made concerns the opening chorus of the work. In his recording you won’t hear the chorale, ‘O Lamm Gottes unschuldig’ sung by a ripieno choir. Egarr says this was an addition in 1736 whereas in 1727 the chorale melody was played on the organ and woodwinds. In his notes Peter Seymour acknowledges that the melody “might perhaps even have been played on the organ only.” However, he opts to have the melody sung by three sopranos and I prefer his solution.

There are differences in the forces employed on the two recordings. It appears from the booklet that Seymour has two choirs, each comprised of one voice to a part and that these singers between them sing the arias. Egarr adopts a different approach: he has two choirs, each consisting of ten singers, and he uses four soloists – who are not part of the choirs – to sing all the arias.

Egarr’s solo quartet comprises some illustrious names and, with one exception, I think the arias are even better sung on the Egarr set than on the Seymour recording, well though all of Seymour’s team perform. The exception concerns the bass arias. Some of these are sung by the excellent Matthew Brook for Seymour and in those instances I have a slight, subjective preference for Christopher Maltman (Egarr). However, other arias on the Seymour set are sung by Peter Harvey and I find it impossible to choose between him and Maltman: both are splendid.

Seymour’s Evangelist is Charles Daniels. He tells the story very well and brings long experience to the role. I think that anyone acquiring this set will be well satisfied with his performance. However, I have to say that James Gilchrist (Egarr) is in a different league. I find him much more affecting and expressive. Furthermore he’s even more imaginative – and daring – than Daniels in his pacing of the narrative and in the way he uses vocal colours. The other principal character is Christus and here Seymour has a trump card in the presence of Peter Harvey. Harvey is one of the finest Bach basses I’ve ever heard and here he brings great distinction to the role. He brings the character of Christ vividly to life – though without any unwarranted exaggeration – and his care for the words, both in the recitatives and when he sings arias, is outstanding. Matthew Rose sings Christus role for Egarr but, good though he is, he doesn’t match Harvey’s eloquence.

Egarr has a very strong quartet to sing the arias and they sing all the arias between them whereas Seymour observes the division between Choirs I and II in allotting the arias. It seems to me that Egarr’s soprano, alto and tenor have an edge over their rivals in the Seymour recording. For example, Sally Bruce Payne sings ‘Erbarme dich’ very well indeed but I find Sarah Connolly (Egarr) brings even more to this aria – and the other alto solos – in terms of expressiveness and richness of vocal timbre. Similarly, Elizabeth Watts offers even more than Seymour’s sopranos. Bethany Seymour is very affecting in ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland Sterben’ but if you then turn to Watts her gorgeous tone and depth of expression wins the day. Thomas Hobbs does the tenor arias very well for Egarr and, for instance, sounds more comfortable with the demanding vocal line of ‘Geduld!’ than does Julian Podger.

As I indicated earlier, honours are much more even when it comes to the bass arias and particularly when one makes a comparison between Peter Harvey and Christopher Maltman. Harvey offers a marvellous account of ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’. His singing is poised and ideally expressive, the vocal line seamless. But it’s part of the pleasure of reviewing to listen first to Harvey’s rendition of this aria and then immediately to turn to Maltman’s account. Maltman’s singing is pretty special too. Egarr takes the aria at a somewhat more flowing tempo than does Seymour and whilst I was moved by the Maltman performance the slightly more expansive tempo adopted by Seymour allows Harvey to find even greater depth in the music, I think, though it’s a close-run thing.

Which leads me on nicely to the question of the direction of the piece. As I reported in my review, I found a great deal to admire in the Egarr performance but I was perplexed by some of his speeds and by a few other slightly quirky touches in the conducting. Peter Seymour is not averse to moving things on at times but I felt infinitely more comfortable with his pacing of the music. I felt I could trust his view of the score whereas Egarr sometimes left me feeling dissatisfied or even confused.

But if I prefer Seymour’s overall direction of the score the recorded sound on the Egarr recording is more to my taste. Seymour’s singers seem to be more closely recorded and whilst this isn’t an issue with the solo singing it does raise questions sometimes in the choral movements. In the very opening chorus, for instance, Seymour’s singers appear uncomfortably close; one is aware of individual voices. Oddly, I was less aware of this in many of the succeeding choral numbers but in the penultimate number, the recitativo ‘Nun ist der Herr zur Rüh gebracht’ the interjections from Choir II are either too loud or recorded too closely – or perhaps both. On the Egarr recording the balance of the choirs is much more satisfactory to my ears. The overall sound is just a bit softer-grained, though no definition is lost, and I found the recording per se a more pleasing experience. Signum’s sound for Seymour, however, is clear, well defined and perfectly acceptable.

The Egarr recording is on three CDs. By dividing Part II after the choral ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ Signum squeezes the work onto two discs with an inevitable impact on price. The Egarr recording is lavishly presented whereas Signum offers a more conventional presentation. However, the Signum booklet gives you all you need: it is clearly laid out and as well as the full text and translation it contains a very interesting and useful essay by Peter Seymour.

Choice between these two recordings is not easy. Seymour wins on price and I prefer the way he conducts the Passion. On the other hand Egarr’s solo team has the edge and the sound on his recording is preferable. Both recording are the product of a great deal of thought and depth of scholarship on the part of the respective conductors. On balance, despite my reservations over some aspects of his conducting I’d opt for Egarr, not least because he has the superior Evangelist. But anyone investing in this Seymour recording will find much to enjoy and to ponder.

John Quinn