JS Bach: St Matthew Passion

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

LABELS: Calliope
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Paul Agnew (Evangelist), Alan Ewing (Jesus), Alain Buet (Judas), Olga Pasichnyk (soprano), Damien Guillon (counter-tenor), Donát Havár (tenor), Marc Boucher (baritone); Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Choeur Maîtrisien du Conservatoire de Wasquehal; La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy/Jean-Claude Malgoire


Jean-Claude Malgoire stands out among fierce competition – over three dozen current options – by being recorded live. The attendant benefits are clear in the ‘turba’ choruses, a hysterical crowd baying for blood, and shattering ‘thunders and lightning’.

Among soloists, the spontaneity of Paul Agnew’s narration is outstanding. He’s an evangelist with a natural delivery and profound sensitivity to the text – Judas’s contrition and suicide are described with immense urgency. 

The scale of forces, between conventional full choir and orchestra and current one-to-a-part innovations, should make for clarity and warm, unclouded tone. But the acoustic of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris is dry, and tone quality tends to hardness. Recording balance leaves the ripieno children’s choir too remote to float above the rich texture of the opening chorus. 

Among the aria soloists, Damien Guillon has an appealing countertenor, though intonation is sometimes insecure. Olga Pasichnyk sings ‘Ich will dir mein Herze’ ardently, and Donát Havár is well-positioned in front of the choral interjections in ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’. Bach’s low tessitura for the following bass aria is rather too deep for Marc Boucher’s baritone. 

Neither strings nor voices seem quite at home with the chosen pitch, just below the modern norm but higher than so-called ‘Baroque pitch’. Alan Ewing particularly is uncomfortable in the higher register – Jesus’s last cry is either tastelessly characterised or agonisingly flat. 


Ton Koopman (Erato), on a similar scale, is a fine alternative recording though John Butt remains my all-time first choice. George Pratt