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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)

[I] Sophie Bevan, soprano; David Allsopp, alto; James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Mark Le Brocq, tenor; William Gaunt, Matthew Rose (Jesus), bass
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge; The Choir of King's College School, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Stephen Cleobury
rec: April 14 - 16, 2019, Cambridge, Chapel of King's College
King's College Recordings - KGS0037 (3 CDs) (© 2020) (2.43'36")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Dorothee Mields, Aleksandra Lewandowska, soprano; Marine Fribourg, mezzo-soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Werner Güra (Evangelist), Thomas Hobbs, Valerio Contaldo, tenor; Benoît Arnould (Jesus), Stephan MacLeod, Matthew Brook, bass
Maîtrise du Conservatoire Populaire de Musique, Danse et Théâtre de Genève; Petits Chanteurs de la Schola de Sion; Maîtrise Musique Ecole du Conservatoire de Lausanne; Gli Angeli Genève
Dir: Stephan MacLeod
rec: April 22 - 25, 2019, Geneva, Studio Ernest Ansermet
Claves - 50-3012/13 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (2.40'00")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[III] Carolyn Sampson, Aki Matsui, soprano; Damien Guillon, Clint van der Linde, alto; Benjamin Bruns (Evangelist), Makoto Sakurada, Zachary Wilder, tenor; Christian Immler (Jesus), Toru Kaku, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: April 2019, Saitama, Saitama Arts Theater Concert Hall
BIS - 2500 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.43'14")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet


The Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach belong among his most frequently performed and recorded works. Almost every year one or several new recordings are released. One may wonder how much these add to what is already on the market, but that hardly seems to be a consideration for record companies. Recently, three new recordings came on the market. They arrived too late last year to be reviewed at the right time of the year.

Let me start with the bare facts. Stephan MacLeod opted for a performance with one voice per part. The eight soloists are joined by eight ripienists in the tutti movements (choruses and chorales). The interpreters of the parts of the Evangelist and Jesus don't participate in the tutti and don't sing any arias. It is noteworthy that the orchestra is considerably larger than one instrument per part: each choir comprises five violins and two violas. Perhaps even more surprising is that the coro in ripieno part is performed by no fewer than twenty singers, boys and girls.
The Choir of King's College Cambridge consists of 29 singers; the sopranos are all boys. Then one expects the same kind of voices in the coro in ripieno, but this part is sung here by 27 members of the King's College School Choir, including girls. The soloists don't participate in the tutti sections. All the arias are sung by the same soloists, ignoring the work's double choir structure. Members of the choir take care of the smaller solo parts. The orchestra is of about the same size as MacLeod's'.
Masaaki Suzuki takes the middle ground between these two. Each of the two choirs consists of thirteen singers, including the soloists, with the exception of Benjamin Bruns, who only performs the part of the Evangelist and does not sing any arias. The orchestra is comparable with that of the two other recordings. The line-up of the coro in ripieno part is remarkable here as well. Rather than boys or children, as is customary in almost every performance, we hear three adult sopranos. Strictly speaking, Suzuki is the only one who is entirely consistent in this matter. In Bach's time, there was no difference in the line-up of this part and the upper parts of the two choirs, as he only made use of boys. As a consequence, if a performer decides to opt for female sopranos, it is only logical to use them in the coro in ripieno part as well.

The recording by Stephen Cleobury [I] - made shortly before his retirement, and, as it turned out six months later, his death - has its strenghts and weaknesses. Unfortunately, the interpretation of the two main roles are among the latter. James Gilchrist frequently sings the role of the Evangelist in Passion performances, in particular in the United Kingdom, but I don't find him very convincing here. He is short on the rhythmic flexibility this part requires; his performance lacks the natural flow of a storyteller. His performance is marred by an incessant vibrato, and that also damages Matthew Rose's account of the part of Jesus. His German pronunciation is not perfect and his performance is too undifferentiated. Jesus's words to Judas, "My friend, why did you come?", is full of compassion, but that does not come off here. Sophie Bevan and David Allsop sing their parts very nicely and are also stylistically convincing. However, they not always succeed in realising the expression in their arias. 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' is well done, as is 'Erbarm es Gott/Können Tränen meiner Wangen'. However, 'Blute nur' is a bit bland, and 'Erbarme dich' is beautiful, but that is not enough. Mark Le Brocq is very disappointing in 'O Schmerz', where he is simply too loud; 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' is undifferentiated in dynamics and expression. William Gaunt uses a bit too much vibrato, but his account of the bass arias is one of the better aspects of this recording. His performances are expressive, but never over the top. Articulation, dynamic differentiation and pronunciation are quite good. All in all his performance is more idiomatic than that of most of his colleagues, who sing too much legato. The latter is also a problem in the choral movements, which are among the most disappointing parts of this recording. They lack profile; the turbae are too uninvolved. The chorales come off without dynamic accents and text expression, and the treatment of the fermates is questionable. The last issue is the choice of tempi. These are too slow now and then in the part of the Evangelist, but the worst of all is the chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner', which I have never heard so slowly. It lacks any power and its dramatic character is completely nullified. On the other hand, some choral movements are too fast, such as the final chorus. That in itself would not be a real problem, if there was a clear differentiation between good and bad notes. However, that is not the case, and as a result it is short on rhythmic pulse and works rather superficial. Overall, it is especially the dramatic features of this work which are not fully conveyed.

In comparison, Stephan MacLeod and his Ensemble Gli Angeli Genève [II] do a considerably better job. The ensemble is much smaller, but less is often more, and that is also the case here. The dramatic features of the St Matthew Passion come off quite well. That is partly due to Werner Güra, who gives an excellent account of the part of the Evangelist. He is an engaging storyteller, and sets dynamic accents at the right places. For the part of Jesus, I probably would have preferred a stronger voice than that of Benoît Arnould, but he delivers a nicely differentiated performance. The tempi are mostly convincing, and even if they are a bit faster than usual, one never gets the impression that they are rushed, thanks to the observation of the rhythmic pulse. The opening choir is a good example. In the duet of soprano and alto, 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen', the dialogue with the choir is particularly pronounced, as the choir's interjections are very powerful and dramatic. The drama then continues in the ensuing chorus 'Sind Blitze, sind Donner'. The difference with Cleobury's performance could hardly be stronger. Overall, the solo parts are well done, even though some of the soloists use a bit more vibrato than would be desirable. Alex Potter is particularly expressive: in 'Buss und Reu' the dismay expressed in the text is convincingly conveyed, and he sings 'Erbarme dich' with great intensity. I don't really like Matthew Brook's voice very much, but there is nothing wrong with his text expression, for instance in 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen' and the preceding recitative. The same goes for Stephan MacLeod: I can't get used to his way of singing, but 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' is beautifully done. 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' receives a differentiated performance from Thomas Hobbs, who proves that one does not have to sing at full power here from start to finish. Valerio Contaldo is excellent in the recitative and aria for tenor in the second part. Unfortunately, Aleksandra Lewandowska and Marine Friborg are a little too pale in their respective arias. Dorothee Mields can sing wonderfully, but here she is not at her best: there is no lack of text expression, although she left me uninvolved in 'Aus Liebe'. However, it is especially her incessant light vibrato which I found unpleasant to listen to. The turbae come off with much more dramatic power than in Cleobury's performance. The chorales are also better, but here I noticed a lack of dynamic accents. The treatment of the fermatas is somewhat unsatisfactory. Despite some issues, I consider this recording to be one of the better ones that have appeared in recent years. Especially in the category of 'one to a part' recordings it can keep up with the (limited) competition.

Suzuki's recording [III] is his second; the first was released about twenty years ago. In comparison with that recording as well as the cantatas, the most substantial difference is that a larger organ is used in the basso continuo. It is not comparable with the instrument Bach himself had at his disposal, but it offers substantially more possibilities than the small organs which are mostly used in performances and recordings, like in the two I just discussed. It has an especially positive effect in the most dramatic episodes, for instance the moment the Evangelist reports that the curtain in the temple is torn and the dead are resurrected. It is also noticeable that the soloists are here largely different from those in the cantata recordings. Unfortunately, by and large this does not have a positive effect on the quality of this performance. There is no lack of drama in Benjamin Bruns' account of the part of the Evangelist - on the contrary. That has to be rated positively. However, his incessant light vibrato is hard to swallow and stylistically untenable. Now and then he also takes too little rhythmic freedom. Christian Immler treats the part of Jesus with the right amount of differentiation, but his voice lacks warmth, and that has a negative effect on his performance of 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' and 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein'. His singing, and that of nearly all soloists, suffers from the same slight vibrato that I noticed in Bruns's singing. For those who are more tolerant in this matter than I am, this may not be a problem, and they will probably enjoy this recording, especially as the interpretations of the arias is generally pretty good. Carolyn Sampson is especially convincing in 'Aus Liebe', which she sings with a well-balanced sensitivity. Damien Guillon explores the meaning of 'Buss und Reu', and his performance of 'Erbarme dich' is more than just beautiful: it is as incisive as it should be. The tenor arias are not among the highlights, I'm afraid. Makoto Sakurada rightly avoids a one-dimensional loudness in 'O Schmerz', but he is a little short on expression in the ensuing aria. The same goes for 'Geduld', sung by Zachary Wilder. The role of Pilate is sung well by Toru Kaku, and delivers a nice performance of 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder'. Aki Matsui is excellent in 'Blute nur', but the tempo is a bit too slow, and that is also the case in other parts, such as the opening chorus. Suzuki is the slowest of the three performances, and as there is too little differentiation between 'good' and 'bad' notes, and as a result the rhythmic pulse is rather unmarked, the chorus gives the impression of just dragging on. The performance of the chorales is clearly based on the text, but unfortunately they are mostly sung with full power, and with too little dynamic shading. The treatment of the fermatas is rather inconsistent.

Although it is inevitable to compare recordings which have been released at about the same time and are discussed in one review article, it makes little sense to express a preference for one of them. After all, there are many other recordings to choose from, and Bach lovers undoubtedly have more than one in their collection. Therefore, probably the most relevant question is whether any of these new recordings adds something substantial to what is already available. That is hard to say, as I certainly don't know all recordings in the catalogue that are based on historical performance practice. That said, considering the small number of recordings with one voice per part, MacLeod's performance seems the most interesting of these three, and the one I would recommend to investigate. Suzuki is interesting for the use of a larger organ in the basso continuo, and the unusual line-up of the coro in ripieno part. As far as the performances are concerned, despite some good moments both Suzuki and Cleobury left me rather uninvolved. The latter has little to offer that can't be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Benoît Arnould
Matthew Brook
Benjamin Bruns
Marine Fribourg
James Gilchrist
Thomas Hobbs
Christian Immler
Mark Le Brocq
Alex Potter
Carolyn Sampson
Zachary Wilder
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Bach Collegium Japan
Gli Angeli Genève
Academy of Ancient Music

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