Gramophone Choral Award 2022

JS Bach St Matthew Passion

Soloists; Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon 

Harmonia Mundi

Having recently tasted Pygmalion’s ravishing performances of two Bach cantatas for solo soprano with Sabine Devieilhe (Erato, 12/21), I sensed – especially in Cantata No 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut – signs that Raphaël Pichon is embarking on a singularly original Bachian journey. Starting from the richly resonant core to his ensemble, irresistibly perceptive and elegant solutions were imagined in textual coloration, instrumental balance and rhetorical shaping, with astringency avoided at every turn. If you suspect that the leap to the St Matthew Passion might be over a gulf too wide, you can be reassured.

From the outset the listener is under no illusions that Pichon is ambitious for shining revelation. Pygmalion are primed. The opening chorus throws wide its doors with a tantalising blend of circumspection and purpose: we are invited to witness this metaphoric wedding procession in a luminous choreography of past and present protagonists – Jesus’s time and ours (and include Bach’s in that). Humanity is under scrutiny but without the overtones of lofty Lutheran theology; as Pichon explains in a fascinating interview, the guiding principle is the prologue and five theatrical ‘acts’ of the tragédie lyrique, with its clearly defined ‘stages’. If this also implies recognisably French reflexes towards a particular kind of aesthetic refinement, they never dominate Pichon’s predominantly eclectic and personal approach.

‘Sustained eloquence is the golden seam in a recording that markedly enriches the Passion’s famously illustrious discography’

More immediately telling is how the spacious recorded sound of the Salle Pierre Boulez in Paris encourages infinite layers of human and musical interaction in each part. As a kind of commentary, early mention must be made of a basso continuo strategy of telling sophistication, ranging from deft and decisive theorbo contributions to an organ that takes a far more critical role in characterising recitatives than I can ever recall. If occasionally intrusive, bold realisations emphasise the personal and devotional asides that the Evangelist must convey alongside his reportage, as well as creating a sensational regal glow around Stéphane Degout’s distinguished and priestly Christus.

In the St Matthew above all, the balance between momentum and stillness is a dark art rarely mastered, arguably presenting the greatest challenge to performers from the Koussevitskys and Mengelbergs of the late 1930s. If that’s one quality that marks out Masaaki Suzuki’s closely bound and beautifully framed reading of 2020, then Pichon’s is decidedly less ritualised, achieving many of the same aims from a very different perspective. Suzuki’s turba scenes fall largely within an Oratorian tradition of the consistently baying mob, whereas Pichon draws on a less binary solution: his crowd evolve their role in a more mercurial and volatile theatrical space. Likewise, the chorales don’t feel traditionally communal. Rather, they serve as pillars of observation in an almost marmoreal Greek fashion – apart from the final one, devastatingly presented unaccompanied.

It would, though, be misleading to overplay the notion of either secularity or objectivity here. Julian Prégardien’s Evangelist is completely mesmerising throughout and the main channel for setting the emotional parameters, with a tender religiosity at the heart of his performance. The rapport with Jesus is uncannily forthright, a ‘relationship’ strikingly contemporary in tone, especially the sense of Christ’s devastating loneliness in the garden as his disciples sleep and he is betrayed – all in a matter of seconds. Indeed, none of the singers recoils from incorporating musical gestures that avoid generic responses. Devieilhe’s ‘Ich will dir mein’ rejoices freely in its sensual roulades and she toys, smilingly, with prescient salvation. Soon after, Christian Immler presents ‘Gerne will ich’ as prayerful reflection, with subtle allusions to the Eucharist, the violins communing in the taking up of ‘Cross and Cup’. If Suzuki and Collegium Musicum Japan let the drama unfold in a gloriously enrapturing arc, Pichon and Pygmalion noticeably draw more on the qualities of the specific ‘tableaux’. But from Barabbas’s release, one is unambiguously thrust towards Golgotha.

With its glowing inner vitality and penetrating observations, this is a Passion that makes a very definite statement about what this work can communicate in our times. Some arias touch freshly in their human perceptiveness and others seriously challenge the ‘status quo’. If you’re able to leave aside your expectations, you will be rewarded by Lucile Richardot’s extraordinary ‘Erbarme dich’ cutting into the flesh as we beg for mercy, rather than merely assuming it. Likewise, ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’, which often foreshadows the imminent murder within the ‘Act of the Cross’, provides balm so fragrant as to disorientate us temporarily from the normal run of events. Degout’s ‘Mache dich’ is a tantalising burst of adrenalin so palpable as to make us spring up and dance. Above all, sustained eloquence is the golden seam in a recording that markedly enriches the Passion’s famously illustrious discography through its quest for endless possibilities. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Gramophone Awards 2022 – The Winners

Select an Award-winner below to read full reviews of each of the winning albums and expert insights from our writers. 

Recording Categories

Opera & Recording of the Year

Korngold: Die tote Stadt (Sols; Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko)


Ysaÿe: Six Solo Violin Sonatas (James Ehnes)

Early Music

Josquin: ‘Baisiez Moy’ (Thélème / Jean-Christophe Groffe)


Mahler: Symphony No 7 (Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko)


Bartók. Beethoven. Berg: Violin Concertos (Frank-Peter Zimmermann; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert, Daniel Harding, Kirill Petrenko)


Beethoven: Diabelli Variations (Mitsuko Uchida)

Concept Album

Enargeia (Emily D'Angelo; Das Freie Orchester Berlin / Jarkko Riihimäki)


Abrahamsen: The Snow Queen (Sols; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera / Cornelius Meister)


’Round Midnight (Quatuor Ebène; Antoine Tamestit; Nicolas Altstaedt)


JS Bach: St Matthew Passion (Sols; Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon)


Rachmaninov: Songs – ‘Dissonance’ (Asmik Grigorian; Lukas Geniušas)

Voice & Ensemble

‘BariTenor’ (Michael Spyres; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra / Marko Letonja)

Spatial Audio

Ravel: Orchestral Works (Sinfonia of London / John Wilson)

Special Awards

Label of the Year


Artist of the Year

Barbara Hannigan

Young Artist of the Year

Johan Dalene

Special Achievement

Mozart Momentum (Leif Ove Andsnes; Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

Lifetime Achievement

Daniel Barenboim

Orchestra of the Year

Budapest Festival Orchestra

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