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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [163:36]
James Gilchrist (tenor - Evangelist); Matthew Rose (bass - Christus); Sophie Bevan (soprano); David Allsopp (countertenor); Mark le Brocq (tenor); William Gaunt (bass);
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; The Choir of King’s College School, Cambridge (ripieno); Academy of Ancient Music / Sir Stephen Cleobury
rec. live 14-16 April, 2019, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
German text and English translation included

This is one of the last recordings – possibly the very last – that the late Sir Stephen Cleobury made before his retirement from the post of Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge in September 2019. It’s a live recording, which I strongly suspect was made during the 2019 Easter at King’s Festival, a festival founded by Sir Stephen during his tenure at King’s. In passing, it’s sad to note that the 2020 Easter at King’s Festival, the first under the direction of his successor, Daniel Hyde has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 emergency. The 2020 Festival was to have included performances of the St John Passion and Dvořák’s Stabat Mater; perhaps those works can be rescheduled for the 2021 Festival.

There’s much to admire and enjoy in this new recording. As a matter of personal taste, I prefer to hear the St Matthew Passion sung by a small adult SATB choir such as one hears in recordings by Philippe Herreweghe or Sir John Eliot Gardiner (review). However, the use of an all-male choir is exactly what Bach would have expected, so it’s authentic. The King’s choir does very well here and the recording allows you to hear the separation between the two choirs distinctly. There were times when I felt that the choral contributions lacked a bit of heft and attack, especially in the turba passages of Part II – sopranos would have brought a bit more weight of tone to the proceedings than boys’ voices. On the other hand, the cutting edge of the trebles is welcome and the boys show no signs of tiredness during what must have been a lengthy assignment. The chorales, all of which are judiciously paced by Cleobury, are consistently well done. Several smaller solo parts are taken by members of the choir and all these singers do well. The one choral disappointment is the ripieno choir at the beginning and end of Part I. The singers are members of the Choir of King’s College School, Cambridge, which is an auditioned choir of boys and girls. The booklet lists 27 singers who took part but they don’t come through clearly enough. That’s particularly true in the opening chorus where the ripieno line should cut through the texture. That really doesn’t happen here. The line can be heard, but not sufficiently incisively. I think, to judge by the booklet photos, that the ripieno singers were positioned above and behind the orchestra and main choir on the organ screen; maybe the microphone placing was not quite right. The line is much more audible in the closing chorus of Part I but there, of course, the ripienists are in unison with the trebles from the main choir.

Cleobury had a strong solo team. David Allsopp was back on home turf – he’s a former choral scholar of King’s. I wondered if perhaps just a bit of poetry was missing in ‘Erbarme dich’ but I admired his account of ‘Können Tränen’, especially the subdued opening of the da capo section, and he’s very committed in the recitative that precedes that aria. His other contributions are very good and in Part I his voice blends very well indeed with that of Sophie Bevan in ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’. Bevan herself is very impressive. In Part I she offers agile but poised singing in ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’; I love her delicate ornamentation of the da capo. Later, in Part II she brings wonderful expression and lovely tone to ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’. In her affecting account of that aria she benefits from the support of a beautifully limpid flute obbligato, played, I think, by Rachel Beckett.

The solo tenor is Mark le Brocq. He has a somewhat bigger voice than one might expect in a period-scale performance but that’s not to suggest for a moment that his singing is out of scale. He does his arias very well. ‘Geduld! Wenn mich faslsche Zungen stechen’ must be a brute of a piece to sing. The solo line is tortured and very challenging to deliver but le Brocq is the master of it. He is also impressive in the passagework of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’. William Gaunt makes a strong impression in the bass arias. I particularly enjoyed his work in Part II. In ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’ the music benefits from his firm, even tone and his sure sense of line. Perhaps his finest contribution of all is ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ which he sings in a soft, consoling fashion, providing balm to the soul – and ears. The preceding recitative is equally fine.

Matthew Rose sang Christus on the 2014 Richard Egarr recording (review). I liked him then and he’s just as good for Cleobury. From his very first entry you can tell that this is someone who brings presence and authority to the role. His is a dignified portrayal of Christus, as can be heard in Part I at the Last Supper. A little later, in the Gethsemane scene, the anguish of Christus is well conveyed. Dignity is the hallmark of his portrayal of Christus when under questioning by Pilate

This is the third time I’ve heard James Gilchrist sing the role of the Evangelist on recordings of the St Matthew Passion. He is the Evangelist both for Gardiner (review) and for Richard Richard Egarr (review). I greatly admired his work in both those recordings but I fancy he has, if anything, surpassed those achievements here. Every aspect of his narration is compelling: his diction is crystal clear; to my ears, he enunciates the German text as if he were a native speaker of the language; and he finds a range of vocal colours that makes his narration especially telling. One other aspect of his approach struck me forcibly as I followed in the Bärenreiter vocal score: Gilchrist is marvellously acute in using short silences, which he times to perfection, to punctuate the narrative flow. All of this means that Gilchrist really brings the story to life: he is a compelling narrator who truly draws the listener in. In Part I his narration of the Betrayal in Gethsemane is vividly done. In Part II he brings biting urgency as he tells the story of Pilate’s questioning of Christus. Surely, no listener can fail to be both gripped and moved by Gilchrist’s Golgotha narrative (‘Und da sie an die Stätte kamen’). As the moment of Christ’s death approaches, Gilchrist’s singing is full of palpable tension (‘Und von der sechsten Stunde…’) and a few moments later, he is searing as he describes the rending of the Temple veil. Finally, the way Gilchrist describes the events after the death of Christ is deeply moving. This is a simply outstanding, all-embracing performance of the role of the Evangelist and it would be worth acquiring this set simply to experience James Gilchrist’s singing.

But, as I’ve indicated already, there are many other factors which make this a desirable addition to a Bach collection. Another is the conducting of Sir Stephen Cleobury. It is evident that he has a deep understanding of the score and a key way in which that comes out is his pacing of the music. All his tempi seem to me to be judiciously chosen and the musicians respond well to his direction. The playing of the Academy of Ancient Music is consistently excellent – there are many fine obbligato contributions and the continuo support for the recitatives is ideally judged.

The recording itself is excellent with my sole caveat being the one I mentioned earlier about the audibility of the ripieno choir. It seems from the booklet that the performers were positioned at the West end of the chapel and the audience had their backs to the high altar. Engineer Arne Akselberg has done a very good job of balancing the singers with the instruments and in conveying the differentiation between Choir I and Choir II – and their respective orchestra groups. I listened to the stereo layer of these hybrid SACDs and was very pleased with the results.

The booklet is very good, albeit the font is on the small side – but, in fairness, there’s a big libretto to fit in. There’s also an excellent essay about the work by John Butt, a former Organ Scholar of the College who, of course, has himself made a notable recording of the St Matthew Passion.

This set is a fine memorial to Sir Stephen Cleobury but, more than that, it’s also an excellent performance in its own right of Bach’s great masterpiece.

John Quinn

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