2 New Bach Passions From Gardiner, Pichon Enhance Digital Options

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Raphaël Pichon and the choir and period-instrument ensemble Pygmalion perform Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ on a new Harmonia Mundi recording.

J.S. Bach: St. John Passion, BWV 245. Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner. Deutsche Grammophon. Available as 2-CD/1 Blu-ray set or streaming in hi-res 16-bit/44.1 kHz

J.S. Bach: Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244. Raphaël Pichon. Pygmalion. Harmonia Mundi HMM902691.93. Available as 3-CD set or streaming in hi-res 16-bit/44.1 kHz

DIGITAL REVIEW — In the weeks leading up to Easter, it’s no surprise to find the release of two high-profile Bach Passion recordings — one of the St. John and one of the St. Matthew. Both are worthy new contributions to an already crowded field. The new St. John Passion on Deutsche Grammophon is John Eliot Gardiner’s third recording of that work and the second with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. This new recording shows many changes in the conductor’s conception of the St. John Passion since the 1986 Archiv Produktion version.

The contrasts are obvious from the first phrase of the opening chorus, which Gardiner now takes a hair faster, with the orchestra’s repetitive rhythm loosened slightly. The chorus itself has a darker, eerier sound. This new approach prepares us for a human-level horror story, not just an important and impersonal religious text.

In general, Gardiner’s latest St. John Passion focuses on the passio, the suffering, in the libretto. Tenor Nick Pritchard, singing the Evangelist, delivers his recitative texts with dramatic phrasing and vibrato for emphasis, quite different from the clear-voiced, almost distant declamation of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the earlier version. William Thomas uses his luminous bass to bring sensitivity to the role of Jesus.

Soprano Julia Doyle, following Bach’s delicate ritornello featuring oboe da caccia and recorder, floats with divine calm through the rippling melody of “Zerfliesse, mein Herz.” Sounding rather hoarse, tenor soloist Peter Davoren delivers the unforgivingly angular vocal line of “Ach mein Sinn” with conviction and moments of tenderness. In a genetic connection to the 1986 recording, the countertenor soloist is Alexander Chance, son of Michael Chance, who sang the same arias in the previous version. The younger Chance gives an achingly beautiful performance of “Es ist vollbracht.”

But the real stars are the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, working in perfect tandem and with a more blended sound production than in the 1986 recording, which sometimes left woodwinds sticking out sonically in homophonic chorale passages. Between Gardiner’s matured conception of the ensemble, the able assistance of producer Adam Goldsmith, and the acoustics of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, the combined choral and orchestral sound on the new recording is consistently integrated. This review refers to the hi-res streaming digital audio; the recording is also available as a 2-CD set in a deluxe edition with a Blu-Ray of the live performance captured in the audio recording.

Speaking of top-notch sound production, the new recording on Harmonia Mundi of the St. Matthew Passion by Raphaël Pichon and the choir and period-instrument ensemble Pygmalion is quite different from Gardiner’s St. John Passion but no less successful. It’s a grander sound, at times less intimate than what might stereotypically be called an early-music recording. Perhaps the primary difference lies in the works themselves. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion in 1727, three years after the St. John, probably for the St. Thomas Church, a larger and more prestigious venue than the earlier work was intended for.

Arguably, it is Bach’s writing for the chorus that most distinguishes his St. Matthew Passion from any other in the genre, including his own St. John. The singers of Pygmalion control powerful expression with precision, from the gentle homorhythm of “Ich bin’s, ich sollte busser” to the shocking dissonant word-painting of “Wie wunderbarlich ist doch diese Strafe” and the impassioned calisthenics of “Ja nicht auf das Fest.” The orchestral sound is never buried under the voices and constantly enriches the harmonic colors. The recording venue, the Grand Salle Pierre Boulez of the Philharmonie de Paris, should get some credit, too.

Outstanding soloists abound, with the voice casting doubled. Tenor Julian Prégardien sings the Evangelist with a light touch that always seems full of wonder, but two other tenors are on call: Reinoud van Mechelen provides supple melismas in “In will bei meinem Jesu wachen,” while Emiliano Gonzalez Toro demonstrates tight, instrument-like ornamentation with his voice during “Geduld, geduld.” Besides delivering the words of Jesus, baritone Stéphane Degout offers a “Mache dich, mein Herz, rein” buoyant with hopeful prayer. Christian Immler takes on the bass aria “Gerne will ich mich bequem,” as impressive in his low register as he is tender at the top of his range.

The alto arias are shared between the sexes. Countertenor Tim Mead’s “Buss und Reu” is brisk and agile yet dripping with regret. “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand,” notable for its huge range, enjoys a masterful reading from contralto Lucile Richardot, with able support from a couple of Pygmalion’s oboists. As for the sopranos, Hana Blažíková, the recording’s only weak link, sounds rhythmically less than comfortable with “Blute nur, du liebes Herz,” but Sabine Devieilhe conquers the deceptively difficult “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” never letting all those repeated high E’s and F’s sound staid or forced.

Just as Easter is welcomed every year by believers, so annual new recordings of Bach’s magnificent Passions are welcome. Especially if they are as rewarding as this year’s crop.