JS Bach: St Matthew Passion
A Matthew Passion on Soli Dei Gloria not conducted by John Eliot Gardiner? The explanation is simple: this 2011 Paris performance in the gothic splendour of St Denis is the latest release from a foundation dedicated to disseminating ‘sacred music for a thirsty world’. The accompanying booklet might be thin on context, but the DVD boasts a lengthy documentary – not especially long on insight – that contains two unforgettable moments: conductor John Nelson pointing out to a startled Christus that at the moment he fears abandonment by the Father, the string ‘halo’ tellingly vanishes from the recitative; and a wonderful impersonation of a chicken!
When Nelson describes the Matthew as the pinnacle of Western musical civilisation, it sounds like a lazy cliché. Curiously, however, as the final chorus dies away, you feel it might be true. It’s the overwhelming sincerity that compels, and Nelson’s cast is strong, if pulling in different directions. The star is Lucy Crowe, effortlessly idiomatic, endlessly radiant, and Matthew Brooke is another singer for whom Baroque is a lingua franca. Mezzo Christine Rice is vocally sumptuous but sometimes fails to ‘settle’, while Nicholas Phan, heartfelt and impassioned, occasionally ventures into unidiomatic tenor heroics – not a charge that could be levelled at Werner Güra’s respectful Evangelist or the measured gravitas of Stephen Morscheck’s Christus. If plushness and incisiveness drive Nelson’s vision, then Oxford’s Schola Cantorum respond in kind.