Bach: St Matthew Passion

James Gilchrist Evangelista, Stephan Loges Jesus, Hannah Morrison, Zoë Brookshaw, Charlotte Ashley, Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney, Hugo Hymas, Ashley Riches, Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells SSSASTBBB, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Trinity Boys Choir, Sir John Eliot Gardiner
161:04 (2 CDs in a hard-covered booklet)
SDG725

This recording was made at a live performance in the Duomo at Pisa last September, at which I happened to be present, and has been splendidly edited. Gardiner was saying to his musicians that this was going to be his last ever St Matthew, and certainly this was the last performance of a whole series that they had given over the previous months. In some ways this is vintage Gardiner; there are two choirs of 6.3.3.3 – so 30 singers plus the cantus firmus from the Trinity Boys Choir and bands with 3.3.2.2.1 strings – but what makes it such a good performance is that all the singers sang off copy, so the absolute unanimity of the words projected into the space is telling, as was the hieratic way that singers from the different cori moved into position to sing with the different instrumental ensembles.

Apart from the peerless James Gilchrist and the commanding Stephan Loges, all other solo roles were sung by members of the choir, revealing what a talented group of singers Gardiner commands. Among the six sopranos, Hannah Morrison is outstanding for her liquid, floating tone, and Eleanor Minney sings one of the best performances of Erbarme dich  I have heard. The clear-voiced tenor of Hugo Hymas seems effortless in the high tessitura of his arias, and Gardiner can choose a more bass bass (Alex Ashworth) for Gebt mir  while giving Gerne will ich mich  and Komm, süßes Kreuz  to the lighter-voiced Ashley Riches, reserving the dark-toned Jonathan Sells for Judas and Am Abend  and Mache dich. Singers like this are much better than the old ‘soloists’ at getting inside the music, and understanding the instruments with which they are singing, and Gardiner at least has this right in not dividing his ‘soloists’ from his choir: in Bach, the soloists are the choir, boosted by groups of ripienists, and this unanimity of choral and solo sound make this Matthew especially well integrated.

In a performance like this, in a substantial space, it would be churlish to criticise such a coherent presentation for what it doesn’t claim to be, but I missed hearing the bass voice in coro I who has sung the part of Jesus also singing Komm, süßes Kreuz, and wonder about the constant criss-crossing of singers to sing with the other band that disregards Bach’s division between the cori.

In his notes – substantially drawn from his 2013 book, Music in the Castle of Heaven  – Gardiner writes interestingly on Bach’s purpose, drawing on the deeply felt Lutheranism he brought to his writing, and how he sought to convey the drama by gathering his hearers into the sound-world of the liturgical event rather than performing at them, as if in an opera house. In modern performances with large forces, where the audience do not have the chorale melodies in their bones, it is difficult to recapture the electric atmosphere of such a liturgical event. But if you want a large-scale performance that avoids the monumental ‘oratorio-style’ of the past while giving due weight to the music, this would be a good choice.

In over-all terms, this is the best of Gardiner’s Matthew Passions. The balance between voices and instruments, not always perfect in that big acoustic in the flesh, has been beautifully captured by the recording editor. The tempi are ideal, with no racing through ‘just because we can’. This is a strong and mature performance, and – should it indeed be the last – will be a fine testimony to Gardiner’s style and intentions in the Matthew Passion.

David Stancliffe