St Matthew Passion – Dunedin Consort & Players

0 of 5 stars

St Matthew Passion, BWV244 [Bach’s Last Performing Version, c.1742]

Evangelist – Nicholas Mulroy
Jesus – Matthew Brook

Susan Hamilton & Cecilia Osmond (sopranos), Clare Wilkinson & Annie Gill (contraltos), Malcolm Bennett (tenor) & Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass)

Dunedin Consort & Players
John Butt (harpsichord)

Recorded 3-6 September 2007 in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: March 2008
CKD 313 (3 CDs/SACDs)
Duration: 2 hours 41 minutes



This is a captivating reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s great religious choral drama, an account which grows out of – rather than being bound by – an adherence to the performing forces of Bach’s time.

Going to the opposite extreme from its recent critically acclaimed and award-winning “Messiah” (which returned to Handel’s neglected Original Version), the Dunedin Consort & Players and John Butt present Bach’s final performing version of “St Matthew Passion”, never before recorded. The scoring isn’t radically different ; the most noticeable departures are the use of a harpsichord instead of an organ as the continuo in the second orchestra, and the addition of a second viola da gamba to the continuo line-up for the tenor recitative and aria ‘Mein Jesus schweigt Geduld’.

The starkest contrast to most available versions, however, is the one-to-a-part ‘choir’: a total of just eight singers. Following in the footsteps of Joshua Rifkin and others, Butt is convinced that Bach wrote for such minimal forces, and argues convincingly that the diverse choral textures of Bach’s exploration of dialogue in “St Matthew Passion” make it particularly well served by the various combinations of solo voices.

Booklet essays are all very well; the proof is in the listening. Just a few numbers are enough to completely bewitch and establish beyond question that Butt’s approach has paid off, reaping uniquely rich dividends. By the end, it’s almost impossible to imagine it performed any other way – surely the greatest compliment one can pay.

The musicianship of the youthful Dunedin Players is, quite simply, second to none. The total commitment and assured fluency of the playing is infused with an innate stylistic awareness that is entirely unanimous with Bach’s music, never contrived. The playing is crisp and buoyant, but – and in this respect it stands out from the ‘period’-instrument crowd – also smooth and immaculately blended. The oboe sound in particular is beautifully fluid.

Butt’s direction is masterful – an entirely homogeneous account that stems from a enthusiasm for music to live and breathe in addition to his intellectual understanding of the score. Tempos are generally brisk, but such is the ‘rightness’ of Butt’s vision that it all flows naturally.

The solo-voice chorus convinces superbly. Far from lacking in weight, the tutti passages and chorales carry a powerful accumulated strength (in Butt’s words, “we hear them as individuals constituting a group rather than simply as a crowd”), and the streamlined, opaque texture is ideally suited to the Passion. It is only when the choirs are broken down to their constituent parts that some of the individual voices are found, unfortunately, to be less satisfying.

Nicholas Mulroy is an excellent Evangelist, an idiomatic, gripping and sympathetic narrator and matched by the strong, individual bass of Matthew Brook who portrays Jesus as commanding and vulnerable. Brook is also allotted ‘Mache dich’, one of the sweetest and most heart-warming accounts. Most other solos are well-sung (highlights include Annie Gill’s eloquent ‘Konnen Tranen’ and Clare Wilkinson’s simple and direct ‘Erbame dich’, with effortless violin obbligato) but the two sopranos are particularly juvenile in tone – their solos lack emotional depth and fail to engage. Butt suggests that Bach may have expected the several cameo roles to seem “awkward and incompetent” owing to their disembodied nature and lack of vocal preparation afforded. His joke that this was “an element of historical accuracy we decided not to duplicate in this recording” was rather unwise, however, for that is exactly how many of those solos do seem in this recording.

The only other currently available recording with solo voices is Paul McCreesh’s with Gabrieli forces on Archiv. It has a definite edge in terms of individual voices, most of which are superior to those of the Dunedin Consort and boasting the likes of Deborah York, Magdalena Kozena, Mark Padmore, James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey. McCreesh’s individualistic account is equally compelling in its communication of the drama, but ultimately yields to the vitality, freshness and peerless contribution of the Dunedin Players. Butt’s harpsichord continuo also adds welcome bite and cleanness to the texture that the sometimes-cloying organ-only versions lack (McCreesh included).

The recording is clear, bright and immediate; although the balance takes a little getting used to (the voices initially seem unnaturally close).

A greatly uplifting and musically satisfying experience, this outstanding “St Matthew Passion” from Linn is let down only by the inconsistency of the solo voices – but this shouldn’t put you off: Butt’s direction transcends such flaws, offering immeasurable rewards. The booklet includes the German text and an English translation.

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