An emo­tional ren­der­ing with a tran­scen­dent ef­fect

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY MARK ESTREN Estren is a free­lance writer.

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.

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