JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244— James Gilchrist (Evangelista), Matthew Rose (Christus), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone); Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr, conductor [Recorded at Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, 20 – 27 April 2014; AAM Records AAM004; 3 CDs, 144:38; Available from AAM, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers];  Charles Daniels (Evangelista), Peter Harvey (Christus), Bethany Seymour and Helen Neeves (sopranos), Sally Bruce-Payne and Nancy Cole (mezzo-sopranos), Joseph Cornwell and Julian Podger (tenors), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone); Yorkshire Baroque Soloists; Peter Seymour, conductor [Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, UK, 7 – 10 September 2013; Signum Classics SIGCD385; 2 CDs, 153:33; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]; and  Charles Daniels (Evangelista & tenor arias), Peter Harvey (Christus), Joanne Lunn (soprano), Margot Oitzinger (contralto), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Pilatus & bass arias); Knabenkantorei Basel, Chor der J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Orchester der J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz, conductor [Recorded in Switzerland in 2012; J.S. Bach-Stiftung B006; 3 CDs, 159:55; Available from J.S. Bach-Stiftung, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, and major music retailers]
Virtually every Eastertide brings a multitude of performances of the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach in an almost endless assortment of performing editions ranging from historically-informed, one-to-a-part readings to the grandiloquent Romanticizations with Victorian-scaled choirs and orchestras. There is no question that the canonical Passions—the Johannes and the Matthäus—are both pillars of the Western choral repertory and masterpieces of their composer’s genius. Whether the swift-moving, intensely dramatic Johannes or the more expansive, contemplative Matthäus is preferred is an individual choice that each listener must make, but the profundity of the Matthäus is undeniably impactful. Likely first performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche at Vespers on Good Friday, 11 April 1727, the Matthäus-Passion underwent revisions at which Bach labored throughout the remaining twenty-three years of his life. Although the work is not known to have been performed beyond Leipzig until the Nineteenth Century, it is a myth that the Matthäus-Passion was completely forgotten within only a few years after Bach’s death. Recent scholarship strongly supports the assertion that the piece remained in relatively frequent circulation in Leipzig until 1800. Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘rediscovery’ of the score and subsequent performance of it—or, rather, his arrangement of it—in Berlin in 1829 was a milestone in the work’s history, one that ushered in renewed interest in and affection for the Matthäus-Passion that persist into the Twenty-First Century. Since the early days of sound recording, the Matthäus-Passion has fared well, with even many of those recordings that are travesties from the perspective of historically-informed performance practices offering superb singing in compensation. The work’s popularity in recent decades notwithstanding, the appearance of three meritorious new recordings of Matthäus-Passion within the space of a few weeks is an uncommon occurrence of near-Biblical proportions. Like the performances in cities large and small throughout the world, each of these recordings of Matthäus-Passion—AAM Records, Signum Classics, and J.S. Bach-Stiftung releases—inhabits its own unique environment. It is a testament to the creative brilliance of Bach’s score that it can endure such differing approaches. In reality, it is this variety that makes Matthäus-Passion such an engaging, inspiring work. Every performance is an opportunity to encounter the score as though for the first time, hearing each number differently than ever before. Each of these recordings has its own prevailing ethos, but they share a commitment to the performance of Bach’s music that is audible in every moment. The score’s ability to unearth in this versatility new ways of seizing the listener’s imagination is one of the most sparkling facets of the Matthäus-Passion.
The companion to the organization’s triumphant recording of the Johannes-Passion [reviewed here], the Academy of Ancient Music’s Matthäus-Passion on the orchestra’s own AAM Records label is characterized by an uncompromisingly high standard of musicality that equals the best recorded performances of Matthäus-Passion in the catalogue. Though flawlessly stylish in the modern sense, there are in this performance tantalizing similarities to the legendary 1930s recordings conducted by Hans Weisbach and Willem Mengelberg, foremost among which is the sharply-drawn dramatic profile of the Passion narrative. Each of these new recordings utilizes the earliest, 1727 version of the score, but under the direction of Richard Egarr the AAM performance throbs with psychological depth and very modern sensibilities. Vitally, these are extracted from the music rather than imposed upon it. Propelled by the quicksilver playing of Maestro Egarr, lutenist William Carter, harpsichordist Jan Waterfield, and organist Alastair Ross, the Academy of Ancient Music choristers and players craft a performance that never puts scholarship ahead of the communication of unfiltered emotions. Few recorded performances have made the violence of the Passion so palpable: the attentive listener cannot fail to feel Christ’s agony. Secondary parts are taken by a fantastically consistent cast of capable singers: sopranos Philippa Hyde and Elizabeth Drury, countertenor Christopher Field, tenor Stuart Jackson, and basses Richard Bannan and Richard Latham all sing confidently, creating dramatically credible characterizations even when given only a few words to sing. Bass Philip Tebb’s Judas and baritone Ashley Riches’s Pilatus are particularly memorable, both for their vitality and the excellent quality of the vocalism. Among the quartet of superb aria soloists, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly earns pride of place with as heartrending an account of the exquisite ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ as has ever been recorded, her malleable tone and refined declamation rivaling those of Kathleen Ferrier, Marga Höffgen, and Christa Ludwig. Ms. Connolly’s singing of 'Buß und Reu,' 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen,' and the lovely 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' with chorus is equally accomplished. She is complemented by the expert singing of soprano Elizabeth Watts, whose traversals of 'Blute nur, du liebes Herz!' and 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' are radiant and obviously heartfelt. Her performance of 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' is exceptionally eloquent. Tenor Thomas Hobbs again confirms that he is one of today’s foremost Bach singers, allying tonal beauty with technical mastery in standard-setting performances of his arias, his singing of 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' with the chorus exhibiting a level of conviction that heightens the meaning of the text. Christopher Maltman’s brawny timbre occasionally lacks ideal richness and security in the lower register for the bass arias, but he makes strong showings in 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' and 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.' Bass-baritone Matthew Rose is a dignified, warmly human Christus, more boy next door than ostentatious Divine Redeemer. He rightly dominates the performance, singing resiliently and making Christus a man rather than an archetype. Among recorded portrayals of the Evangelista in Matthäus-Passion, James Gilchrist’s performance on this recording stands out for the ease and liquidity of the vocalism and the psychological depth of the storytelling. He encounters no challenge that his technique cannot surmount with panache to spare, and he makes as much of the text as of the music. Many Evangelistas illuminate particular passages, but Mr. Gilchrist’s singing shines in every phrase. Like AAM’s Johannes-Passion, this Matthäus-Passion is an incredibly competitive recording, one that preserves not a studio-bound account but a thriving, profoundly affecting performance of Bach’s awe-inspiring score.
The performance by Yorkshire Baroque Soloists on Signum Classics seeks to present the Matthäus-Passion as it was first heard on Good Friday 1727 in the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Kantor. It seems strange that efforts to perform a score precisely as its composer would have expected it to be executed should be deemed ambitious, but casting aside almost two centuries-worth of good-intentioned meddling and accumulated traditions is a daunting task. On the whole, this performance, directed by Peter Seymour, manages to use the small forces now thought to replicate the personnel of Bach’s first performances without sounding anemic in the score’s most grandiose passages. Closely adhering to Bach’s structure of the work as it is now understood, not only are the chorus and orchestra here in two parts as the score dictates but the arias are also divided between two quartets of soloists according to their context within the narrative. Like Maestro Egarr, Maestro Seymour presides from the harpsichord, and his playing, seconded by the lovingly understated performances of lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and organist Robert Patterson, provides a firm musical foundation upon which layers of detail are constructed by the well-matched cast. Young baritone Johnny Herford is a vibrant, solid-voiced presence whether depicting Petrus, Pilatus, or a High Priest, and soprano Bethan Thomas is a delight as Pilate’s Wife. She, Eleanor Thompson, and Elissa Edwards sing sweetly as the soprani in ripieno. Bethany Seymour directs a flow of silvery tone through her singing of ‘Ich will dir mein Herzen schenken’ and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,’ and Helen Neeves sings ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’ with equal distinction. The alto arias are sung with impressive interpretive depth by Sally Bruce-Payne, whose accounts of ‘Buß und Reu,’ the ardent ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott,’ and ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ shimmer with devotion, and Nancy Cole, who sings ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ with handsome, focused tone. Joseph Cornwell possesses one of the most astonishing bravura techniques heard in Baroque music for the tenor voice, but his singing of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ in this performance impresses most viscerally not with technical brilliance but with emotional directness. Julian Podger matches Mr. Cornwell’s achievement with his keen singing of ‘Geduld!’ Bass-baritone Matthew Brook offers firm, attractive vocalism in ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ As bass soloist, Peter Harvey sings ‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin,’ ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz,’ and ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ powerfully, but his greatest attainment in this performance is his sonorous, sensitive Christus. His experience in Matthäus-Passion is extensive, but his impersonation of Christus in this recording is anything but routine. In this, he is partnered by the flexibly-voiced Evangelista of Charles Daniels, whose lean, captivating singing lures the listener into the drama with almost tangible immediacy. The value of its fidelity to Bach’s original concept of the score notwithstanding, the foremost pleasure of this Matthäus-Passion is its honesty. Nothing is exaggerated or approximated: more than most performances in the discography, this is unmistakably Bach’s Matthäus-Passion.
That the music for the Evangelista and Christus in the Matthäus-Passion is of a difficulty that essentially makes them Fächer of their own is evident in the fact that the recording of the work by the J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen shares the singers of both parts with the Yorkshire Baroque recording. An installment in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung’s admirable recorded survey of all of Bach’s sacred music, this performance of Matthäus-Passion honors Teutonic traditions in all the right ways. The Chor und Orchester der J.S. Bach-Stiftung and Knabenkantorei Basel respond to Rudolf Lutz’s leadership as though performing for Bach himself, their efforts skillfully buttressed by the continuo of harpsichordist Thomas Leininger and organist Norbert Zeilberger. It is only reasonable that the aim of a recording destined for inclusion in an exploration of Bach’s complete choral works should be an indelibly authoritative Matthäus-Passion, and, with a few minor exceptions, this goal is realized. In minor parts, sopranos Mirham Berli, Susanne Frei, and Guro Hjemli are occasionally shrill but effective, and basses Philippe Rayot, Manuel Walser, Chaspar Mani, and Valentin Parli sing committedly as Judas, Petrus, and the Hohepriester. The voice of soprano Joanne Lunn soars through her arias, her singing of ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ discernibly shaped by a very personal reaction to the text. The pinnacle of Margot Oitzinger’s resonant singing of the alto arias is justifiably her fervent recitation of ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott,’ but her every note seems quarried from the soul. Wolf Matthias Friedrich bawls menacingly as Pilatus and rolls through the bass arias with aplomb, the efficacy of his singing undermined only by a few moments of strain at the extremes of his range. Mr. Harvey repeats his urbane but unpretentious Christus, an even more successful assumption in the context of this recording owing to the sympathetic acoustic. Mr. Daniels here faces the formidable task of singing both the Evangelista’s music and the tenor arias. Not surprisingly, he meets every demand spellbindingly. Like Mr. Harvey, Mr. Daniels is a tested veteran of Bach’s Passions, but he sings the music in this recording of Matthäus-Passion as though it were new to his repertory. This performance does not endeavor to inject artificial drama into Bach’s score: rather, it extricates from the work’s words and music the inherent catastrophe and catharsis that make Matthäus-Passion a monumental work of timeless, universal force.
Precisely how Matthäus-Passion sounded when it was first performed on Good Friday in 1727 can now only be imagined, but nearly a century of recorded excerpts and complete performances enables the modern listener to appreciate why this music is treasured by people of all creeds. Johann Sebastian Bach was surely a pious man, but in order to appreciate his Matthäus-Passion one’s faith need only be in music. These three recordings of Matthäus-Passion confirm that there are in this score as many paths to spiritual exultation as there are people to travel them. If one must choose only one of these recordings, the Academy of Ancient Music performance is the prime contender, but each of these accounts enriches the Matthäus-Passion discography in wondrous, welcome ways.