An emotional rendering with a transcendent effect
Bach’s religious sincerity so pervades his “St. Matthew Passion” that even today, in an age far more secular than his, an outstanding performance has a transcendent effect. Stephen Cleobury’s exemplary reading shows why this work has been so universally admired since Mendelssohn reintroduced it to audiences in the 19th century. But unlike 19th-century performances, Cleobury’s has the scale that Bach intended: Soloists complemented by a modest chorus and small, transparent instrumental ensemble. The result is a rendition whose emotional intensity comes through very clearly – for example, when the chorus assumes the role of the crowd demanding the death of Jesus and the release of Barabbas.
This is also a recording in which the arias, which comment on and expand the basic narrative from Matthew’s Gospel, are exceptionally effective, thanks to soloists who do not seem to be straining to adapt to the performance practices of Bach’s time. Their singing flows naturally, with clean ornamentation and impressively thoughtful balance between voices and instruments. The overall effect mixes emotive conviction with absolute beauty in the delivery of arias and choruses alike.
Of special note are tenor Martyn Hill and altoMichael Chance, who sing with extraordinary purity of tone and sure sense of style. As the Evangelist, Rogers CoveyCrump handles the narration skillfully. Michael George makes a sonorous, committed Jesus. Emma Kirkby and David Thomas are also very fine – and the chorus members do an excellent job of transmitting the emotional meaning underpinning the familiar biblical story.
The bonus DVD contains the entire 165-minute performance, presented with visual sensitivity and without distracting special effects. Some listeners might prefer it to the CDs, although the “St. Matthew Passion” was not designed to be heard straight through. The first part was for before the Good Friday sermon; the balance for afterward.
This set does have two oddities. It includes the work’s full text, but only in German – English speakers will need to find their own translation. And the box clearly states, twice, that the performance uses Bach’s “1725 version,” which is an absurdity, because the first form of the work dates to 1727. The version usually heard, and the one performed here, was completed in 1746. But the excellence of the playing and singing more than make up for these packaging peculiarities.