JS Bach: St Matthew Passion

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Challenge Classics
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Gerlinde Sämann, Marie Kuijken (soprano), Petra Noskaiová, Patrizia Hardt (alto), Christoph Genz, Bernhard Hunziker (tenor), Jan Van der Crabben, Marcus Niedermeyr (bass); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
CATALOGUE NO: CC72357 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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The Hamburg pastor and librettist Erdmann Neumeister described church cantatas as ‘like a piece from an opera’, in which context the Passion is the greatest drama of all. Sigiswald Kuijken is a convert to one-to-a-part voices and instruments and, as in his cantata recordings, he lightens the texture further by limiting the bass line to written pitch, dispensing with double bass or violone an octave below. The effect is often contemplative rather than vividly dramatic. 

Kuijken’s blessed with gloriously natural and unaffected voices. His Evangelist, Christoph Genz, is outstanding, bending note-values and rests in favour of expressive narration. The tenor aria ‘Geduld!’, with its high, angular line and fiercely dotted rhythm, is sung with lyrical ease; the mezzo-soprano’s ‘Erbarme dich’ has a fresh countertenorish quality; the bass creates a warm legato in ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’ – and the versatile Kuijken himself provides polished obbligatos for both violin and viola da gamba as required. Chorales, the Church’s meditations on the action, are purposeful, Bach’s pauses providing breathing points rather than halting the harmonic flow.  

But Kuijken’s delicate transparency, beautiful though it is, rather limits his dramatic scope. Compared with John Butt’s account, my current benchmark recording, almost every movement is a touch slower. The ‘turba’ choruses aren’t those of a ravening, bloodthirsty mob; the disciples ask who will betray Jesus with mild interest rather than anxious concern. 

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Recording balance is occasionally suspect: the gloriously climactic ripieno chorale in the opening movement is almost inaudible – one distant soprano above double choir and orchestra. But the sheer beauty of tone and line is deeply moving. George Pratt