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Bach: St Matthew Passion

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0
Matthew Passion Herreweghe

JS Bach
St Matthew Passion
Ian Bostridge (Evangelist), Franz-Josef Selig (Jesus), Sibylla Rubens (soprano), Andreas Scholl (alto), Werner Güra (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (bass); Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino, Collegium Vocale Orchestra & Choir/Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901676-78


A full decade has elapsed since John Eliot Gardiner’s award-winning recording for Archiv set a new standard for interpreting the St Matthew Passion. Although a ‘historically aware’ account, it was (with hindsight) sufficiently expressive and dramatically engaged to win the affections of those suckled on Furtwängler, Klemperer, or Karajan: even they would dissent from the appalled old noblewoman at an early performance who likened the work to ‘an Opera Comedy’.

As might be expected, Herreweghe’s new St Matthew owes more to Gardiner than to Furtwängler, marrying state-of-the-art ‘period’ performance, robust yet focused choral contributions, and a team of well-matched soloists as much at home in later repertoire as in early. Yet a fundamental difference soon emerges. One might hesitate to call Herrweghe’s reading lightweight: his forces are relatively large in number and his tempi brisk (though never undignified). But he seems more intent on clarifying the work’s architecture, pointing up its symmetries, rather than exploring its emotional and theological implications. In this respect, at least, a comparison with Klemperer seems valid.

Such an approach goes a long way in explaining the somewhat detached stance adopted by the soloists. Bostridge, as the Evangelist, for all his verbal clarity, assumes the persona of a disinterested newscaster; though, like Andreas Scholl, whose legato and beauty of tone continue to amaze, his musicality is beyond question, as too is that of the tenor Werner Güra, the basses Franz-Josef Selig and Dietrich Henschel, and the slightly pallid soprano of Sybilla Rubens.

This, then, is not the ground-breaking St Matthew for the new millennium. But on its own terms it succeeds: not a ‘great’ performance, but a five-star job none the less.

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Antony Bye