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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion (Matthäuspassion)
BWV 244 [161:04]
James Gilchrist (tenor – Evangelista); Stephan Loges (bass -Jesus); Hannah Morrison, Zoë Brookshaw, Charlotte Ashley (soprano); Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney (alto) Hugo Hymas (tenor); Ashley Riches, Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells (bass);
Trinity Boys Choir; Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 22 September, 2016, Pisa Cathedral
German text, English & French translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG725 [80:08 + 80:56]

Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1988 DG Archive recording of the Matthäuspassion has been my preferred version of this masterpiece for nearly 30 years, though it has faced some formidable competition over the years from recordings that I’ve subsequently acquired. Notwithstanding the excellence of that recording, I’ve been hoping that he might revisit the score in a live recording and now he has. This new release from SDG preserves a performance given in Pisa Cathedral as part of the Anima Mundi Festival in 2016. It was the last in a series of no less than sixteen performances which Gardiner and his team gave in a number of European venues, beginning in March 2016. The locations of these concerts included, very fittingly, the Tomaskirche, Leipzig (in June) and, a couple of days later, the Snape Maltings as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, The choice of the Maltings was a happy piece of symmetry because it was the place where Gardiner’s 1988 recording was set down under studio conditions. Remarkably, during these concerts the chorus always sang from memory (I don’t know if the soloists were allowed to use copies.)

It’s worth giving an indication of the forces used in this performance. The two choirs each comprised 14 singers (5/3/3/3). The two orchestras were in scale, each comprising 3/3/2/2/1 in the strings plus pairs of flutes and oboes as well as a bassoon.

There’s one very important difference between Gardiner’s two recordings. In 1988 he used external soloists, including such luminaries as Barbara Bonney, Michael Chance, Anne Sofie von Otter and Olaf Bär. This time, with the exception of the Evangelist and the Christus, all the soloists are members of the Monteverdi Choir who stepped forward from the ranks of the choir to perform their solos and then reverted to chorus duties. I guess there were several reasons for adopting that approach during such an extended series of performances and no doubt some of the reasons will have been practical. However, I suspect that the audiences will have experienced something quite unusual as a result. The solo arias and recitativos provide reflections on the Gospel narrative and it must have been quite thought-provoking to hear these solos sung by representatives of the turba.

I must say that there weren’t many occasions when I regretted the absence of ‘big name’ soloists; few of the 2016 soloists were heard at a disadvantage in an A/B comparison between the two recordings. There’s really only one disappointment. I’m afraid that Reginald Mobley is no match for his rivals in the older set. For example, in ‘Buß und Reu’ he seems to try too hard – Anne Sofie von Otter is expressive but with less evident effort – and I don’t like his rather jerky way with the preceding recitativo. Elsewhere I don’t think Mobley is quite as polished or as stylish as either von Otter or Michael Chance though he makes a good job of his last aria, ‘Sehet, Jesu hat die Hand’.

The other alto, Eleanor Minney is much more to my taste. She doesn’t have the haunting timbre of Michael Chance in ‘Erbarme dich’ but she still sings it very well indeed and with fine feeling. Her other contributions are similarly successful.

Among the sopranos, Zoë Brookshaw does well in ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz’, though perhaps Ann Monoyios on the earlier set suggests greater fragility. Hannah Morrison is particularly good in a touching rendition of ‘Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben’. Tenor Hugo Hymas has some of the most challenging arias in the work. I admired his account of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ in which he need not fear comparison with the excellent Howard Crook on the 1988 set – Hymas’ breath control is admirable.. He also matches the intensity of Crook in the tortuous ‘Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stehen’

Ashley Riches, who is a good Pilate, comes up against Olaf Bär in the arias. In ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ Riches sings very well indeed, even if he can’t quite equal the velvety delivery of Bär. I also enjoyed Riches’ account of ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ Here the viola da gamba obbligato is played – deliberately, I’m certain – in a very effortful way to suggest Christ’s painful, halting trudge under the weight of his cross. The contrast with Riches’ smooth legato is striking. On the earlier recording it’s noticeable that the gamba playing is a bit smoother while Bär’s singing is suave and expressive. The other bass on Gardner’s DG set is Cornelius Hauptmann. He was allotted ‘Gebt mir m einem Jesum wieder’ and he does it well but coming back to the recording now I thought he was over-emphatic at times. On the new recording Alex Ashworth avoids that trap and I liked both his commanding voice and also the clarity he brings to the passagework. We have to wait quite a while before we hear the other bass, Jonathan Sells, because he’s allocated the very last aria in the Passion. He sings the recitativo, ‘Am Abend, da es kühle war’ very well indeed. Sells is gently sorrowful here but Hauptmann is even more imaginative, singing the music in almost a mezza voce, which is most affecting. Both singers deliver ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ very well indeed and with fine easy legato. If I have a preference for Hauptmann’s timbre it’s a marginal one.

So, despite the absence of well-known soloists, this account of the Matthäuspassion has few weaknesses in that respect and the small recitative roles are also well taken. That leaves us with the Christus and Evangelist. Stephan Loges is a very experienced singer and he’s a reliable Christus. However, when I compared him with Andreas Schmidt on the 1988 set, I found Schmidt more satisfying. Loges seems a little effortful at times whereas Schmidt’s delivery is flexible and easy. It was noticeable that Loges sounded most at ease on the arioso-like passage where Christ institutes the Eucharist. The other passage that stood out for me was the scene in Gethsemane where Christ returns to find his disciples sleeping. Loges sounds fierce at this point while Schmidt strikes a note of more gentle reproach. It’s a personal thing, of course, but that’s how I envisage Christ would have dealt with the situation. Loges brings much to the performance but for me Schmidt has the edge.

I have not the slightest reservation about James Gilchrist as the Evangelist: he is absolutely outstanding. He sang the role in Richard Egarr’s recording a couple of years ago and I admired his contribution greatly (review). However, I had some serious reservations about the direction of the performance. I’m glad, therefore, to hear Gilchrist again. It’s been fascinating to compare him with Anthony Rolfe Johnson who sang the role for Gardiner in 1988. I honestly find it impossible to express a preference for one over the other, different though they are. It seemed that as soon as I’d relished an insight or a felicitous piece of singing from one of these two fine tenors then the other would come up with something different to delight me. As the risk of making one or two sweeping generalisations I’d say that Rolfe Johnson is somewhat sweeter of tone while Gilchrist has a slightly narrower tone and sounds a bit more Germanic than his rival. Perhaps Gilchrist has the edge when it comes to passages that require biting drama in the voice. Both enunciate the text with great clarity and understanding: each is a compelling narrator. I’m certain that I shall return, as I have done many times over the years, to Rolfe Johnson but I’m thrilled by Gilchrist’s wonderfully involving assumption of the role in this performance.

The Monteverdi Choir is superb throughout this new performance – as was the 1988 incarnation of the choir - and even though I know they’re all professional singers I’m still lost in admiration that they could memorise such demanding music and deliver it with such consummate assurance. The chorales are all done with great care and attention to detail, though that comment should not be taken to imply any fussiness. The choir is superbly incisive throughout and in the turba passages they often inject genuine venom into the crowd’s contributions. This is a performance that shows the Monteverdi Choir at their very best. I must not forget to mention, either, the Trinity Boys Choir whose ripieno parts at the beginning and end of Part I cut through the texture in an ideal fashion.

The orchestral contribution is no less distinguished and in particular the crucial obbligato parts are all played with great distinction. It’s unfair to single out individuals but the violin solo in ‘Erbarme dich’ is outstanding (Kati Debretzeni, I presume). So is the poignant flute obbligato in ‘Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ (Rachel Beckett?)

Gardiner’s direction of the Passion is completely convincing. He clearly sees the piece in one great sweeping arch – or at least that’s how it comes across. From the very first chorus, taken quite quickly though not excessively so, the listener is caught up in the drama but is also given ample opportunity to reflect. I have to admit that I didn’t notice too many significant interpretative differences between this and his earlier recording – here and there a tempo may be a little faster or slower than in 1988 – but nonetheless the present performance is clearly the product of considerable thought and reflection on Gardiner’s part during the intervening years. And through he conveys the sweep of the drama this doesn’t preclude attention to points of fine detail. This is a compelling realisation of Bach’s vision.

The performance has been expertly recorded – the engineer was the highly experienced Mike Hatch. He seems to have opted for a closer balance than the DG Archiv engineers achieved in 1988. I suspect that may be to do with a resonant acoustic in Pisa Cathedral and also the presence of an audience – who are completely silent throughout. The balance may be closer than on the DG set but it’s by no means excessively close and it does help the performance to achieve great impact. Working in the empty Snape Maltings DG took advantage of the natural resonance of the hall and the performers are a bit more distanced; in particular there’s a pleasing aura around the solo voices.

SDG’s documentation is invariably very good and that’s the case here too. There’s an insightful introductory note by Sir John which is based on material from his superb book, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. There are also some extracts from notes he wrote for the performers and diary entries, all compiled during the run of performances.

This is a distinguished, enthralling and deeply rewarding set which does justice to Bach’s great masterpiece.

John Quinn



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