JS Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244b (early version)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Signum Classics
WORKS: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244b (early version)
PERFORMER: Charles Daniels, Peter Harvey, Bethany Seymour, Helen Neeves, Sally Bruce-Payne, Joseph Cornwell, Nancy Cole, Julian Podger, Matthew Brook; Yorkshire Baroque Soloists/Peter Seymour
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD385

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When a composer bequeaths a pristine copy of his final thoughts on a work is that the end of the story? Does it completely override the original conception or might that too have something to tell us? To the average Leipziger-in-the-pew the differences between the 1727 original version of the St Matthew Passion and its 1736 reincarnation might, with a few notable exceptions, seem broadly academic, but they are telling. Was the ‘O Mensch bewein’ conclusion to Part 1 originally omitted because, used to open a recent revival of the St John Passion, it would be too ‘fresh’ on the ears? Or was the stark simplicity of the closing chorale in keeping with a slightly less elaborate approach to the work? And in exchanging gamba for lute in the 1736 Komm, süsses Kreuz, is Bach shifting the theological focus from ‘süsses’ (sweet) to the agonies of the cross, or bowing to the strengths and weaknesses of the forces available to him at different times? Crucially, too, the 1727 ‘original’ joins the two choruses and orchestras at the hip with a single shared continuo group – blunting any stereo effect.

Yorkshire Baroque sets itself apart from the Academy of Ancient Music’s recent recording of the same version (reviewed June 2015) by performing one to a part. There’s a gain in graininess, but with nowhere to hide, a few rough edges creep in. Charles Daniels’s scrupulously inflected Evangelist and Peter Harvey’s noble Christus anchor an account that, alongside the higher voltage and polish of Richard Egarr’s AAM set, can sometimes sound a touch workmanlike, but the leanness lends fresh perspectives.

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Paul Riley