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JS Bach: St Matthew Passion

Matthew Passion Butt

JS Bach
St Matthew Passion
Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Matthew Brook (Jesus); Susan Hamilton, Cecilia Osmond (soprano), Clare Wilkinson, Annie Gill (alto), Malcolm Bennett (tenor), Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass); Dunedin Consort & Players/John Butt
Linn Records CKD 313

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One-to-a-part Bach infiltrated the St Matthew Passion with Paul McCreesh in 2002. I described him then as ‘provocative and compelling’, and John Butt is no less so. Of his eight remarkable singers (plus two unison sopranos for the opening chorus’ crowning chorale) several are barely out of college, but they match spine-tingling tone with astonishing maturity. Nicholas Mulroy as Evangelist has a powerful dramatic sense, sometimes floating free of Bach’s note-values – he’s mercilessly harsh when Jesus is spat upon – elsewhere meticulous: Peter’s weeping would move the hardest heart. The freshness of other soloists is deeply affecting. For instance, Clare Wilkinson partners two flutes to perfection in ‘Buss und Reu’, while Susan Hamilton joins impeccable oboes d’amore in ‘Ich will dir….’. Matthew Brook is a touchingly human Jesus.

Reduced forces present special challenges in the choral numbers. Eight voices successfully reflect the Lutheran congregation identifying with the chorales (though Butt’s variable approach to Bach’s pauses puzzles me; sometimes they’re simply breathing points, elsewhere they’re held for two extra beats). If the mob lacks the mass hysteria familiar from TV newsreels, they are realistically ferocious. Only the work’s monumental opening loses, for me, some coherence. Rather than the softer focus of a choir, the cutting edge of solo voices mingled with that of minimal instruments creates more, rather than less, complexity in already dense counterpoint. Yet Linn’s on-going commitment to SACD pays off handsomely, with three-dimensional crowds and vocal soloists standing forward of their accompaniment – all confirmation of this as my new benchmark.

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