An Intriguing New Recording of Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion'

John Eliot Gardiner's recording of Bach’s 'St. Matthew Passion' is not perfect, creating an atmosphere of being at a live concert

John Eliot Gardiner.
Sim Canetty-Clarke

John Eliot Gardiner is probably the most successful of the period-instrument school of conductors. He has long since acquired legendary status, and even though he records a great deal, every new recording of his is an event – certainly in the case of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s greatest works. For me, in recent years, most of these events have ended in disappointment, whether because of soloists I didn’t like, as in the “St. John Passion,” or because of an interpretation that did not move me, as in the B Minor Mass. The only truly wonderful recording was that of the six religious vocal compositions, the motets. Now, though, we have a particularly joyful event: a new recording by Gardiner of the “St. Matthew Passion” (on the SDG label). The longest musical version of the crucifixion narrative, it is one of the most beloved and most highly regarded pieces in the Bach oeuvre.

Changed approach

Gardiner first recorded the work in 1988, with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists orchestra. The solo singers were among the leading artists of the time, including the marvelous tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the role of the Evangelist, the narrator. The new version was recorded in 2016 in a live concert at Pisa, the last of 16 concerts in which the work was performed at different venues.

The differences between the two recordings illustrate vividly the change that has taken place in Gardiner’s approach over the years. The older version, in which there is still much to enjoy, is highly polished, with beautiful voices, meticulous balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra, and a lucid recording. In comparison to that purity, the new recording sounds less uniform, almost careless. Even though the Monteverdi Choir is excellent, as always, and the English Baroque Soloists play superbly, the recording is less balanced, and the soloists seem to be occupied more with expressing dramatic feeling and less with balance and vocal immaculateness.

That’s a bit disturbing at times. When the bass, Alex Ashworth, sings “Give me back my Jesus,” he ranges between growling and roaring. The counter-tenor, Reginald Mobley, doesn’t have an especially fine voice. In the famous aria for alto, “Have mercy” (“Erbarme dich”), Kati Debretzeni’s violin accompaniment is wonderful, while the singer, Eleanor Minney, moves between dulcet velvety tones and a less pleasant metallic sound, though the whole aria is thrilling. Standouts are the bass, Stephan Loges, who sings the role of Jesus with soft, rounded lyricism, and above all the tenor, James Gilchrist, in the key role of the Evangelist. Gilchrist has a very high voice and he exhibits flexible punctuation and entrancing dynamics.

The recording is intriguing. In meticulous terms of sound, it is flawed. The high notes of the choir become sharp at times; the placement of the soloists is vague, and of the instruments still more. But these flaws assuredly evoke the experience of listening in a “real” concert hall, and even though I usually prefer clear recordings, here the atmosphere appears to serve the interpretation.

I especially like Gardiner’s interpretation this time. To some degree he has abandoned the beautiful sound in favor of a performance rich in expression but internalized and void of pathos. He offers a personal, intimate execution of the work.

Throughout the “St. Matthew Passion,”a famous chorale – not by Bach, but one known to all churchgoers – recurs in varying moods. As I listened, I found myself occasionally joining in the chorale. Swept up into the intimacy of the performance, I become part of an imagined choir that Gardiner creates through the music.