Bach St Matthew Passion BWV244b

Charles Daniels Evangelist, Peter Harvey Christus, Yorkshire Bach Soloists, Peter Seymour
153:33 (2 CDs)
Signum Classics SIGCD385

Peter Seymour’s Yorkshire Baroque Soloists give us a thoughtful, moderately-paced account of the early version of Bach’s Matthäuspassion, helped greatly by a score carefully prepared by Peter Seymour and splendidly sung by Charles Daniels and Peter Harvey. Charles Daniels has that exquisite vocal and linguistic fluency that makes you relish every syllable and hang on to the edge of your seat; and Peter Harvey’s seasoned account of the part of Jesus, where in this performance the halo of single strings led by Lucy Russell have the clarity of a consort of viols, gets better each time he does it. He forms the secure bass of choir 1, so sings the arias too – as is proper: “Mache dich” is as splendid as it could ever be, with plenty of oboe da caccia coming though the texture.

In terms of vocal quality, Choir 2 has better blend, with the admirable Matthew Brook a violone-like bass, utterly gripping in “Gibt mir”, and the clarity of Julian Podger’s splendid tenor line (only heard on its own, alas, in “Geduld”) well-matched by Nancy Cole, a very promising young singer. Peter Seymour is well-known for searching out and nurturing local talent, and Nancy has studied at York, as has the more experienced Helen Neeves. Choir 1 has another young local, Bethany Seymour, on the top line. In Part 1, I found her rather tight vibrato, apparent even in the chorus numbers, unattractive and her lack of breath control in “Ich will dir mein Herze” distracting; however, in the recit and “Aus Liebe” we hear a totally different singer! Here her clarity and ability to float the lines are winsome. But it is Sally Bruce-Payne who is of star quality throughout; she combines a real rich, deep vocal quality with a clarity and verbal flexibility that is not always evident in real alto voices. By contrast, Charles Daniels’ sub in Choir 1, Joseph Cornwell, sounds rather strained in “O Schmerz”. Peter and Pilate are sung convincingly by Johnny Herford, and Bethan Thomas, singing the soprano bit parts, has the kind of voice I like.

The single strings have the advantage of letting us hear all the woodwind detail with even greater clarity. All the flutes are from the North East, and we hear their detail even in the turba choruses. The opening chorus is unhurried and well balanced, and I like the way the recording – in a relatively small space in a York church – is so clear and immediate. But we have a vocal line for the chorale in the very first chorus: is this right in this early version? I thought that it was most likely to have been played on the organ – but then this is a small box organ, and almost certainly has no sesquialtera.

The occasional accidentals that are different in the early version are intriguing, and of course the major differences from the 1736 version are the simple chorale to conclude Part 1, and a lute instead of the later gamba in “Komm süßes Kreuz” which gives it a less tortured, more domestic feel. Here I’d have preferred an organ to the lute stop of a harpsichord as providing a better contrast to the lute.

But overall, this is a musical and coherent performance, as you would expect from a group who have played together a good bit, made distinguished by some fine singing by many of the singers and lovely playing especially by the strings.

David Stancliffe