J. S. Bach St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (1727 Version)

James Gilchrist Evangelista, Matthew Rose Jesus, Ashley Riches Pilatus, Elizabeth Watts, Sarah Connolly, Thomas Hobbs, Christopher Maltman SATB, Choir of the AAM, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr

AAM Recordings AAM004

The Academy of Ancient Music with Richard Egarr have also released a 1727 Matthew Passion, which in many ways is very different from Peter Seymour’s Yorkshire Bach Soloists. Here the current orthodoxy of eight voices is set aside in favour of two choruses of ten voices each and four distinctly soloistic soloists, who, together with three ‘character parts’ – Evangelist, Jesus and Pilate – never sing with the chori. This means that the chorus numbers – especially the turba choruses can be, and are, sung extremely fast and cleanly – there’s no trace of a wobble here. Only once did I find myself really querying the elasticity of their fluent tempi changes, and that was in “Andern hat er geholfen” – the turba chorus that taunts Jesus on the cross. But sometimes they outpace even the admirable and mellifluous Evangelist, James Gilchrist, who sings to the accompaniment of a fairly full continuo section. In the surviving score of the early version, copied by Altnickol’s pupil c.1755, the one bass section serves as a joint bass line for both orchestras. Richard Egarr clearly plays the rather mellow harpsichord with the Evangelist, but why is there another one? Two harpsichords to one organ seems an odd balance.

Chorales are also brisk; not merely unsentimental, but fast and direct. In the opening chorus, at a rhythmic, swinging pace, the chorale is played (correctly) on the organ alone, (like the chorale in Cantata 161: Weimar 1716, where the Sesquialtera is also called for) although the Klop organ which boasts an 8’ wooden principal doesn’t run to the specified Sesquialtera – a pity, as some of Klop’s do: and the tempo hots up for the sharp staccato exchange between the choirs – a foretaste of things to come. The variations in tempo indicated in this early score for “O Schmerz” for example – un poco allegro for the choir II chorale – are exploited to the full, and indeed the playing is so assured and confident that there can be a good deal of rubato in the movements – beautifully done by the flute, Rachel Beckett, in “Aus Liebe” for example. This confidence and rhythmic fluency – evident in the soloists (for that’s what they are) too – is the hallmark of this recording. Sarah Connolly stretches many phrases in “Erbame dich”, and the solo violins in each band are accompanied by the string of the opposite group: an indication of single strings originally perhaps?

For me, the weakest voice is Matthew Rose, the bass who sings Jesus. His voice is much plummier than the others, and he makes Jesus sound rather portly and elderly. The tenor Thomas Hobbs is wonderfully clean by comparison and Christopher Maltman sings beautifully in “Komm süßes Kreuz” with the lute and just the organ in this early version, evoking the domestic side of Lutheran piety to perfection.

So there is much to commend this beautifully crafted performance: only in her last phrase did I find Elizabeth Watts’ wobble on the sublime “Tausend Dank” unbearable. But it was clearly all very much meant and even if this isn’t my favourite version there can’t be enough takes – especially now that the 1727 material is readily available – of the Great Passion.

For those who would like an early version Matthew, there is a choice between these two versions. The AAM one is more polished, and a lot faster. The YBS is less hurried, and has a far finer Jesus; its soloists are the singers of the chori, so in many ways it is more ‘proper’, and it is on 2CDs in a standard package. But the slicker and glossier presentation – even if the scholarly evidence is less to the fore: why can’t all directors and writers of liner notes quote their sources, and give us helpful references to the instruments being used (as is done on the AAM set) and on the temperament chosen for the keyboards? – may win friends for the AAM. I would listen to both, and find a pair of contracting performances like these unusually instructive.

I should add, so that it is clear where my own preferences lie, that neither of these displace Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli Consort recording from 2003 (though it is of course the later version) made with the splendid organs in the cathedral at Roskilde at the top of my list of Matthew Passions.

David Stancliffe