St Matthew Passion
Grace Davidson, Natalie Clifton-Griffith (soprano), Mark Chambers, Matthew Venner (alto), Jeremy Budd, Christopher Watson (tenor), Eamonn Dougan, Greg Skidmore, James Birchall (bass); Ex Cathedra Choir & Baroque Orchestra/Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchid Classics ORC 100007
The St Matthew Passion was part of Good Friday Vespers, the biblical narrative and the chorales familiar to the congregation, and in their native language. Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra forces, in this recording released to celebrate the group’s 40th anniversary, reflect Bach’s own practice in many respects – period instruments, soloists picked from the choir, and a fine sense of performance style.
And, like Bach, they also sing in the language of their audience – English. The translation is new, borrowing from Ivor Atkins in 1911 but updated. ‘Thou’ becomes ‘you’, Jesus is ‘troubled and apprehensive’ rather than ‘sorrowful and heavy’. There are questionable details, but the result is theologically refreshed, matches the contours of Bach’s musical lines and is contemporary without losing dignity. (If you prefer Bach’s original German, Dunedin Consort & Players/Butt is outstanding on Linn CKD 313.)
The Ex Cathedra performance is superb. Skidmore refers in his notes to Bach’s incorporation of dance, and the large-scale framing choruses are saturated in it – and all the more poignant for not being lugubrious. He’s finely balanced between the over-dramatic and merely prosaic.
Jeremy Budd is an unaffected narrator of the Evangelist’s story; Natalie Clifton-Griffith’s ‘Break in grief’ is heart-rending; Mark Chambers’ ‘Have mercy, Lord’ deeply moving and, as choral singers, all the aria soloists are free of overly-distinctive vocal affectations. Obbligato instruments are excellent throughout, momentary blemishes of intonation and ensemble well worth the added exuberance of live performance in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.
The 50-strong chorus may lack the clarity of more minimalist approaches, but their density suits the congregational chorales and they enact powerfully the role (all too familiar in today’s strife-torn world) of a ravening horde.
Read more reviews of the latest JS Bach recordings