JS BACH St Matthew Passion
As has often been the case since his Bach Pilgrimage of 2000, the John Eliot Gardiner of this new, second recording of the St Matthew Passion is a changed conductor from that of the first. That was a studio version for DG (10/89), made when Gardiner was their Bach man enjoying the benefits of studio time and big-name soloists including Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter; it was a state-of-the-art product but today can sound a little brisk and uninvolved in that 1980s way, particularly with regard to the shaping of the words. The new recording for the Monteverdi Choir’s own label is a live concert recording, with all the soloists except the Evangelist and Christus drawn from the ranks of the chorus. The live format is not so unusual in these economic times but choir soloists do seem to be dear to Gardiner for purely musical considerations, to judge from his use of them in several post-Pilgrimage projects. There is no doubt, however, that both elements pay off here.
The recording was made in Pisa Cathedral last September, but its foundations were laid over the previous six months in a 15-city tour which included a memorable performance in Brussels the day after the terror attacks there. The experience seems to have drawn the musicians together and intensified their commitment. If a Passion performance has no sense of community it has nothing, and this is surely the making of Gardiner’s account. This is a memorable and moving St Matthew, and for all the right reasons.
Musically it is very fine. The choir are excellent, of course, with a solid but clear and intimate sound even in the larger choruses, no end of expressive means in the chorales, and a thrilling quickness in the crowd choruses. Gardiner asks for a lot of quiet singing from them and they execute it with superbly controlled beauty. The orchestra is as skilled and musical as you like in their obbligatos, and exquisitely responsive to Gardiner’s subtle shapings – the string accompaniments to Christus’s recitatives, for instance, normally thought of as ‘haloes’, have never sounded so alert to the meaning of the Word. The experienced Evangelist of James Gilchrist and Christus of Stephan Loges are not to be faulted, and none of the nine young aria soloists is a weak link, to the extent that I’m loath to single out any one of them at the expense of another; suffice to say that each one lives up to their moment in the drama. Any or all of these are things you may find in other Matthews; but you will rarely find the same careful relishing of text, which treats the German words almost as rhythmical and textural sounds in themselves rather than theological pronouncements, as in Hannah Morrison’s lilting ‘Ich-h will hier mein Herze strenken’ or the choir’s impatient ‘L-lass ihn kreuzigen!’
What really makes this one special, however, is its emotional integrity, coming not from affected theatricality but from a pervading air of profound sadness. If ‘sad’ seems a weak word, it is not meant to be; it is just that the actors of this piece are not tearing at their hair but letting the weight of the events they are witnessing sink deep into their beings as individuals. The aching ‘Erbarme dich’ of alto Eleanor Minney and violinist Kati Debretzeni expresses it perfectly, assuming the pain further unto itself in a barely breathed da capo, like a wounded bird.
This is just one strongly moving moment among many, which more often than not are achieved through tender phrasing, confident (but never exaggerated) articulation and measured (but not sluggish) tempos. Though this at first may seem like a surprisingly light-touch reading from Gardiner, it is in fact one with a firmly controlled atmosphere of hurt and vulnerability. And when an individual performance does break through to something more outwardly emotional, as in Minney’s imploring ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ or the heavy-laden strokes of Reiko Ichise’s gamba in ‘Komm süsses Kreuz’, it thus emerges all the more truly.
In his booklet-note Gardiner repeats his assertion that Bach’s great skill as an artist lay in his ability to write music with supreme power to console, and it is clear that this is what he has looked for here. That his considerable experience has enabled him to find it in such a thoughtfully moulded, expertly executed and deeply committed reading, so honestly communicative of its intent and so free of self-conscious monumentalism, sententiousness or melodramatics, is why I believe it to be one of his finest achievements.