John Eliot Gardiner conducts JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: St Matthew Passion
PERFORMER: Hannah Morrison, Zoë Brookshaw, Charlotte Ashley (soprano), Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney (alto), James Gilchrist, Hugo Hymas (tenor), Stephan Loges, Ashley Riches, Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells (bass); Trinity Boys Choir; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: SDG 725

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It is almost 30 years since John Eliot Gardiner made his first commercial recording of Bach’s Great Passion, as his family were accustomed to call it. Gardiner’s approach has not significantly changed over the decades though one discernible difference is a mixed male and female voice texture for the alto strand of the choral numbers as opposed to the all-male countertenor line up of the earlier version. I prefer the mixed sound though some readers may not.

In this recording, made in Pisa Cathedral, Gardiner and his team sound more relaxed and less driven than sometimes in the past. Yet the opening chorus does not quite achieve the radiance and declamatory force of the earlier version, though there is perhaps greater communicative warmth and expressive delicacy. An onerous weight of responsibility for the success of Bach’s Passions lies with the role of Evangelist who relates the events in simple recitative. James Gilchrist is among the most communicative of storytellers and his lightly articulated, subtly nuanced declamation and, where required, his sense of urgency are eloquent and dependable. I am less enthusiastic about Stephan Loges’s Jesus which is less well focused and inclined towards excessive vibrato.

The many choruses, chorales and arias come across convincingly, some more alluringly than others but in every instance supported and complemented by accomplished, if on occasion over-ornamented instrumental playing. Eleanor Minney deserves special mention for her ‘Erbarme dich’ and ‘Können Tränen’, the former delicately partnered by violinist Kati Debretzeni.

Gardiner directs all with insight, sensibility and a commendably athletic overview which ensures an unflagging sense of drama. Full texts in German, English and French are included.

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Nicholas Anderson