Classical Reissue Reviews
BACH: St. Matthew Passion – Bostridge, Scholl, Gura, etc. / Collegium Vocale Gent/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor – Harmonia mundi (3 CDs)
Published on December 4, 2009
BACH: St. Matthew Passion – Bostridge, Scholl, Gura, etc. /Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe – Harmonia mundi HMC 901676.78 (3 CDs) 161:22 *****:
As Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion he soon realized that this unique work would be his artistic legacy. He continued making changes to it over the years but by 1736 he was sufficiently pleased with his great composition to make a fair autograph copy. It featured beautiful calligraphy which he had printed in multiple colors of ink. Bach treasured it for the rest of his life. He even restored the manuscript following a damaging accident, carefully replacing several lost staves by attaching strips of paper upon which music had been copied in his meticulous handwriting.
The St. Matthew Passion – like Shakespeare’s plays and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – is one of Europe’s touchstone artistic creations. It is hardly surprising that it is difficult to prevent a sense of monumentality from coloring a performance. Such weightiness can cause the Passion to sound static and sententious. Successful interpretations embrace Bach’s emotional depth, even his expressions of sorrow, whilst simultaneously reveling in the work’s joy and stunning beauty.
Bach utilized diverse musical means to obtain the widest possible range of musical expressiveness. This performance under the baton of Philippe Herreweghe – who was born in Ghent, the medieval center for wool and cloth – is like an aural tapestry that weaves musical diversity into a single artistic whole. Multi-hued and boldly pictorial Herreweghe conducts a St. Matthew Passion of rare grace and elegance. The singers led by countertenor Andreas Scholl and tenor Ian Bostridge are appropriately expressive and always tasteful. Instrumentalists are superb and play with an easy refinement and consummate skill. They emphasize the work’s beauty and proportion. It is in many ways a quintessentially Gallic performance.
The recording made in 1998 is crystal clear with a deep sound stage that provides a real heft to the performance. The blend of voices and instruments is a paradigm of clarity and textural transparency. The dynamic range of the recording is appropriately broad for such a massive work but it is often subtly variable in its response to the text. A reverberant bloom surrounds the performers making it a pleasure to listen to.
- – Mike Birman