Bach: St Matthew Passion

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Vanguard
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Emma Kirkby (sop), Michael Chance (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump, Martyn Hill (tenor), Michael George, David Thomas (bass)Choirs of King’s College and Jesus College, Cambridge, Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
CATALOGUE NO: 99068/70 DDD
This new release of Bach’s great drama of Christ’s Passion was recorded in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in March 1994. The recording is made from live performances, so something of their special occasional atmosphere is preserved. The ‘Early Music’ line-up of soloists could hardly be more star-studded and it is backed up by well-disciplined singing by the King’s College Choir and, where required in Bach’s score, by the soprano voices of the Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, ‘in ripieno’.

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The conductor, Stephen Cleobury, is not one of those who is determined to leave an indelible imprint of his own musical personality on the performance. Rather, he prefers to let the music unfold without the interference of gestures and quirks which can so easily distort its natural declamation. What Cleobury does understand rather well is the poetry of the music, which is lovingly projected through the voices of his choir – the lyricism of ‘So schlafen unsre Sünden ein’ (CD 1, track 28) is affecting.

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The role of the Evangelist, crucial to Bach’s Passions on a number of levels, is sensitively realised, lightly and with clarity of diction by Rogers Covey-Crump. Michael George (bass), as Christus, is even-toned and resonant. Emma Kirkby (soprano) and Michael Chance (countertenor) are pleasing in timbre and show sensibility in their shaping of Bach’s broadly conceived melodic line, but I found tenor Martyn Hill and bass David Thomas less consistently in tune with the prevailing spirit of Cleobury’s paced approach. The instrumental support is generally sympathetic but, inevitably, precious details of the music are lost in the spacious acoustic of King’s Chapel. The booklet, though admirable in content, is faintly printed and difficult to read. The black, furry, velvet-covered CD box has the sinister appearance of once having been among the effects of a certain Transylvanian count with sharp teeth and nocturnal habits. Nicholas Anderson