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 Recording of the Week  Sir John Eliot Gardiner returns to Bach's St Matthew Passion

In last week’s newsletter I interviewed Sir John Eliot Gardiner about recording Bach’s St Matthew Passion live, three decades after his pioneering studio account of the work (made in Snape Maltings in 1989); the proof of the pudding is of course in the eating, and as numerous readers responded to ask for a review, here are a few thoughts from me on how it measures up.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Gardiner may have lived with this music for half his life, but still gives the impression that he’s discovering little miracles in it for the first time: there’s never any sense of routine from him or from the performers, despite this being the final performance of a gruelling European tour. Having all singers commit the score to memory was clearly more than a mere marketing gimmick or endurance-test: the Monteverdi Choir can turn on a dime from the rapt contemplation of the chorales to the savagery of the crowd baying for Christ’s blood. That’s not to suggest that there’s any drop in emotional temperature during the chorales themselves: the sense that everyone is personally invested in the unfolding events is every bit as palpable as it was in Peter Sellars’ staged ‘ritualisation’ from Berlin which I reviewed a few years ago (those of you who’ve read last week’s interview may remember that Gardiner didn’t pull his punches about his dislike of ‘painfully gratuitous’ stagings, but this recording’s imbued with his conviction that Bach approached the Passion story with ‘the flair of the born dramatist’).

James Gilchrist’s Evangelist is a known quantity (he’s recorded the role for Richard Egarr and Paul McCreesh), but the live performance spurs him onto ever more vivid and at times harrowing commentary – the shock of each humiliation heaped upon Jesus is as raw as if you’d never heard the narrative before. Stephan Loges bears out Gardiner’s remarks about the Jesus of the Matthew Passion being ‘more human’ than in the John, and indeed this comes across more strongly here than on the 1989 recording, where Stephen Varcoe was almost dispassionate when predicting his denial by Peter – here Loges flares with barely-suppressed anger and hurt.

So what else is different, thirty years down the line? In terms of tempi, very little: Gardiner remains ever-aware of the dance-impulses underlying the music, though my general impression was of the arias in particular being given more space to unfold even when the metronome-markings are virtually identical on the two recordings. The contrasting acoustics also play a role: Pisa Cathedral is warmer and more resonant than Snape, and the antiphonal exchanges are more pronounced (helped by the positioning of the two choirs – throughout the tour, Gardiner made a point of capitalising on the dramatic potential of the large performing-spaces available).

As on his earlier recording, Gardiner shares the arias around rather than bringing in single dedicated soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists; this time round, the individual singers (with the exception of the Evangelist and Jesus) are all ‘step-outs’ from the Monteverdi Choir. If solo contributions are perhaps less consistently assured across the board than those on the earlier set (which boasted names including Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter), there are some lovely distinctive voices: the bass-baritones Ashley Riches and Jonathan Sells give particularly eloquent accounts of ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz!’ and ‘Mache dich’ respectively, as well as making vivid and incisive contributions as Pilate and Judas. Other stand-outs are sopranos Zoe Brookshaw and Hannah Morrison, both steady and clear of tone but with more bloom and warmth than their counterparts in 1989.

One for Gardiner devotees and newcomers alike, then: if you own his earlier recording, you’ll want to hear this for the crackling dramatic energy generated by the live performance; if you’re looking for a first Matthew Passion, you’ll be held spellbound by the unflagging momentum of a reading that’s the product of three decades of studying, performing and loving this music.

Bach, J S: St Matthew Passion, BWV244

James Gilchrist tenor (Evangelist), Stephan Loges bass (Jesus), Hannah Morrison, Zoë Brookshaw, Charlotte Ashley (soprano), Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney (alto), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Ashley Riches, Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells (bass), English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC