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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Soli Deo Gloria 725

Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244

James Gilchrist, tenor
Stephan Loges, bass-baritone
Monteverdi Choir
Trinity Boys Choir
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG725
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This is the second available recording of Bach's Matthew Passion by John Eliot Gardiner. The first [available on DG 427648, and (now) as part of various collections] was made – in the Snape Maltings as long ago as April 1988, almost 30 years ago. That, too, featured the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir; but none of the same soloists as this latest – and keenly-awaited – live recording on Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria label. It was recorded on a single day, September 22 last year (2016), in the large cathedral in Pisa as one of several performances throughout Europe during their tour that summer.

Gardiner's devotion to Bach has certainly deepened in the intervening decades – as is evidenced by his recent book, "Music in the Castle of Heaven"… this current release is grander and weightier than his earlier account. Yet it's no less serviceable or approachable. Above all, it seems to suggest, Bach's genius is so immense that there will always be room and scope for seemingly infinite ways of interpreting and presenting his music.

The Choirs (the Monteverdi and Trinity Boys) and English Baroque Soloists have also inevitably matured since the 1980s, then roughly 20 years since they were founded. Their collective familiarity with the music has grown. Yet they quietly express an exemplary freshness and spontaneity in this recording. That sense of singing "collectively" is important, by the way; they do not do record "with one voice" so much as with one purpose. There is a great feeling of direction and drive from first note to last in this performance.

While other soloists are drawn from the Choirs, the Evangelist is James Gilchrist and Stephan Loges the Jesus. Both are on very top form: rich, sonorous, dextrous and fully engaged, rather than declamatory. In common with the majority of the other soloists, you feel they are inviting the listener into the experience, and neither proselytizing nor having to try hard to convince. The underlying tone seems to be that the singing (and playing) has somehow helped the performers come to terms with the tragedy of the passion in such a way that we too can thus partake of that implicit healing too. There is something so natural and forthright about the act on which they're all engaged that must inevitably help us all. So over-statement is unnecessary.

Using period instruments, the clarity of individual lines is evident from the very start. Gardiner prizes accuracy and meticulous detail far more than "effect". But acts as an utterly legitimate agent of "affect". Although never over florid, the music is allowed to reach into our awareness of dismay, hope, empathy and – ultimately – uplift. The singers in particular – chorus as well as soloists – are at pains to project themselves only as far as they need to. Not to impose or elevate the spectacular. Rather to accept the different emotional levels of which Picander (the Passion's librettist) and Bach were aware: sorrow, fear, anger, suffering, the duality of sacrifice… selflessness and regret.

For Gardiner this mature and thoughtful account is an amalgam of these emotions and experiences. It is that complex blend which conveys the Passion's confessional import. As Gardiner says in his essay about the genesis and scoring of the work – including his speculation that The Matthew Passion was originally intended to form part of the composer's second cantata cycle – we have no record at all of the work's performance (including, significantly, any sense of numbers), its reception or impact on congregation and the citizens of Leipzig. But Gardiner has here unobtrusively stripped away any accretions laid onto the work by subsequent generations of performance tradition. In this respect this account comes closer, perhaps, to the directness, and exposed style, of John Butt's recording with the Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 313).

This is not to say that the work is unduly simplified. Rather, that those aspects of its structure such as the preceding of each aria by an arioso render it at the same time more dramatic yet less polemical. And so (both Bach and Gardiner implicitly maintain) the very sequences of musical mood render the work more immediate by being less rhetorical. The danger of "disassembling" a work such as The Matthew Passion in this way, of course, is that it becomes trite, fragmented, fussy. Such qualities are entirely absent from this performance. There is precision, delicacy and poignancy. Yet these are infused with conviction and confidence in such a way that we are not spectators; but are caught up in events and their weight. It is, though, at these very transitions between numbers, where the tempo often changes, that we are made aware of the lightness and nimble approach of which Gardiner is such an expert. It's not superficial nor hurried. But the weight of the substance of the Passion is conveyed through musical engagement with the text, not by dragging the pace.

Soprano Hannah Morrison's aria "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken" [CD.1 tr.13] is a good example. To offer one's heart and invite Christ to "sink" in the (singer's) self completely is to envisage a unison of immense proportion. But the very act of retaining transparency and modesty adds to the impact – almost in the ways in which the unpretentiousness of Schubert's profoundest Lieder achieve their effect by understatement. Analogously, the change of key and register between "Ja, freilich" and "Komm Süßes Kreuz" [CD.2 tr.s19,20] initially strikes us with its freshness. But soon it's the intensity and extent to which humans need to recognize their limitations and call on their faith to assist which predominate.

At the same time, a sense of hurt, vulnerability and profound sadness – without ever a hint of open-faced dismay – underpins the performance throughout. Humans' relationship with the Divine. Yet (as "Music in the Castle of Heaven" suggests) we are involved in a potentially healing process for Bach's music has a specially consoling power which, once obvious, becomes all but irresistible. Gardiner is emphasizing the humanity of Bach's purpose. Now given that Bach uses dialog to make the otherwise stylized interaction, "discussion" almost, accessible to those listening, there is a danger of a certain artificiality. This, too, is avoided in this conception of Gardiner's. The human again. There is pathos, hope, love and humility in equal measure. Listen to the beginning of the passion's peroration in "Wenn in einmal soll scheiden" [CD.2. tr.25]: tenderness and reassurance themselves.

Gardiner has achieved a continuity and consistency which bring out much more of the Passion's essence than gaudiness or heightened color would do. At the same time the balance of, say, woodwind, chorus and solo voice in such as Hugo Hymas' tenor aria "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen" [CD.1 tr.20] suggests that – however appropriately suave the result – much thought and work have gone into pace, phrasing and each number's context as part of the whole. There is, that is to say, a superb equilibrium between forward movement and awareness of the subtle beauty of, and need for, each moment as the events unfold. The Matthew Passion is a story with meditation, not an abstract concept.

Gardiner has followed his heart (and probably Lutheran doctrine) in conceiving this in what he has said will be his last recorded Matthew Passion. It's a conception of the work in which the congregation, listeners, worshippers (as you wish) are drawn into the music, not performed to – as with an opera. Yes, there are aspects of the spatial disposition of singers which draw attention to the drama; for some this may be distracting… unusually pronounced left-right channels, for instance, in places. But this has to be set against an animation and spontaneity that come from the fact that this recording was performed from memory, not scores. Singers moved in and out of position for solos and specific choral purposes. Was this, perhaps, how the work was first performed in the western choir loft of St Thomas?

The acoustic of the Duomo in Pisa is drier than one might imagine – but never to the recording's detriment: an intimacy which is so essential for the work's meaning is never lacking. There is an audience listening; but only on one or two very rare occasions are we aware of them. It's most obviously a live performance in such choral climacterics as "Sind Blitze, sind Donner" [CD.1 tr.27], which thrill; but do not overwhelm. Gardiner makes it plain that spurious force achieves nothing. Instead he may even be saying – in accordance with Bach's humility – that the music has a role as justified stimulus. Our familiarity with the severity of the crucifixion sponsors an involvement with its position in Judeo-Christian thought which places the music in a mediating position rather than a summative one.

In common with the diary-like notes which accompanied each release in Gardiner's year long "pilgrimage" during which his forces performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas on the Sundays throughout the year for which they were written, the informative booklet contains the full text in German, English and French. It is bound into this two-CD volume. Gardiner provides "Rehearsal Notes" which illuminate some of the concepts, the processes and results of intimate co-existence with the music. They convey with sober conviction the inestimable breadth of Bach's Passion. They suggest ways in which it offers so much – from solace (Gardiner was in Brussels close to the terrorist atrocity on March 22, 2016) to inspiration and sublime uplift in all our lives. This is indeed an uplifting and inspirational recording – one which no lover of music should not buy. No one account could ever be definitive. This one is attractive in every way.

Copyright © 2017, Mark Sealey