JS Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Channel Classics
WORKS: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244
PERFORMER: Gerd Türk (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass); Kampen Boys Choir; Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
CATALOGUE NO: CCS SA 32511

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Bach scholar, John Butt, has described Bach’s St Matthew Passion as ‘perhaps the most challenging and ambitious Christian artwork’. Well over 50 recordings have tried to meet this challenge, ranging from large choirs with independent casts of soloists to lean, one-to-a-part offerings, soloists drawn from the skeletal ensemble.
 
Jos van Veldhoven, though, has proposed another highly imaginative possibility. He has two quartets of soloists which also provide Choirs 1 and 2, but adds eight more voices to the first choir so the double choruses are unbalanced, 12 singers pitted against four. It’s astonishingly effective. In the opening contemplation, the larger choir summons us to ‘hear my mourning’, while the solo quartet asks ‘Whom?’, ‘How?’, ‘What?’. Above them soars the uplifting legato chorale from nine boys of the Kampen Choir, their tone-quality ideally differentiated from the adult voices.
 
In the crowd choruses, where two choirs echo each other, they are curiously more real for their contrasting timbres – ‘Who is he that smote thee?’ comes from two distinct groups each, as it were, darting forward in turn to strike Jesus. Sensitive surround-sound recording retains admirable balance between the eight parts, differentiated by timbre rather than numbers. All 12 voices combine to lend congregational weight to chorales, while the delicacy of just solo quartet behind oboe and tenor in ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu’ is magical. 
 
Given the debt the Passions owe to opera, it’s strange (though probably authentic) that Christus also sings in Coro 1. The only independent soloist is Gerd Türk, a fine Evangelist, describing the action vividly but objectively, and leaving the emotional outpourings to the arias.
 
Of alternative recordings, the Dunedin Consort (Linn), my previous top choice, is challenged by this new spatial and tonal experience from van Veldhoven. Time and familiarity will tell.  George Pratt