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American Record Guide: (07-08/2020) 
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King's College
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Reviewer: William J. Gatens


These two recordings of the St Matthew Passion, both from 2019, have many elements in common but also some significant differences. Both use period instruments and have countertenors as alto soloists. Each is a characteristic instance of the modern–day approach to baroque music. Masaaki Suzuki's choral singers are 26 mixed adults in two choirs of 13 voices. As far as I am concerned, they represent the gold standard in baroque choral singing. Stephen Cleobury's choir of King's College, Cambridge, is a traditional English choral foundation with boys on the soprano line and countertenors on alto. The booklet lists 28 singers. We cannot jump to the conclusion that they produce the men–and–boys sound Bach would have expected in his sacred vocal music. We can never know exactly how Bach's singers sounded, but present–day German choirboys sound very different from their English counterparts. As far as I know, the countertenor voice was never cultivated in Germany. Alto parts would most likely have been sung by older boys whose voices were on the verge of changing. Then there is the whole controversy as to whether this music was sung by one voice to a part. Both choirs are excellent, but I find that Bach Collegium Japan has the edge in clarity, precision, and intonation. It is well known that Bach wrote the St Matthew Passion for two choirs and two orchestras plus a ripieno chorale choir that sings in the opening and probably the closing movements of Part I. The aria soloists are from the choirs, and Bach specifically designates which choir contributes a given soloist. Suzuki preserves this aspect of the scoring, and a glance at the heading of this review shows four pairs of soloists apart from the Evangelist. Christian Immler does double duty as Bass 1 soloist and Jesus. Cleobury, on the other hand, has a conventional quartet of soloists who are not part of either choir.

It is pointless to attempt the St Matthew Passion without a first–rate Evangelist. The  part consists entirely of recitative, but it is demanding and lies high in the tenor voice. Both of these recordings have excellent Evangelists with clear and rounded tone that seems especially designed to deliver this narrative with engaging conviction. Neither Benjamin Bruns for Suzuki nor James Gilchrist for Cleobury show any strain on the higher reaches of their part. The question inevitably arises of how theatrical this part is meant to be. There is, of course, a dramatic component in this work, especially in the dialog that runs through it, but it is not an opera. It is an integral part of a worship service. (The Leipzig authorities advised Bach against writing operatic church music.) The dialog is embedded in the Evangelist's narrative and interrupted with contemplative accompanied recitatives, arias, and chorales. The Evangelist is essentially a storyteller, and the expressive telling of a story is quite different from acting a part. At some point, vehement expression can cross the line into frantic histrionics. I think both of these Evangelists cross it from time to time, Bruns more often than Gilchrist. This is Suzuki's second recording of the St Matthew Passion with Bach Collegium Japan. The first was made in 1999.

The only soloist who appears in both is tenor Makoto Sakurada. Bass Chiyuki Urano was a soloist in 1999. Here he is listed with the choir but has no solo assignments. The earlier recording used a quartet of soloists who were not part of the choirs. Some of the minor roles were sung by choir members. Comparing the two recordings, I would not say that Suzuki now has a drastically different conception of the work after 20 years. One notable difference is in his treatment of the chorales. I have rather strong feelings on this subject. (See my review of the St John Passion, above.) In 1999 Suzuki treated the chorales with a formal solemnity befitting the voice of the Church, and that is how I think they should be treated. In the new recording the delivery is far more subjective, with varying tempos, performance styles, and imposed dynamic shadings that tend to undermine their function as the sturdy pillars supporting the narrative and contemplative aspects of the other movements. The sound of the new recording, making use of SACD technology, is warmer and clearer than 1999, and I find the balance between solo voices and instruments much improved. Perhaps the most notable difference between this and the earlier recording is the organ used for continuo. As Suzuki points out in a brief essay in the booklet, this function would have been performed in Bach's day by the large church organ in the west gallery. Most modern performances rely on feeble– toned cabinet organs. Suzuki claims that the ideal continuo organ for his purposes would have a substantial though not necessarily very loud foundation tone, the capacity to play at 16–foot pitch, a tuning adjustment for differences in temperature, and the ability to play at historical pitch levels and tunings. Finally, it needs to be movable. Organ builder Marc Garnier has built such an instrument, heard on this recording as the continuo organ for choir and orchestra 1 and the Evangelist's recitatives. It produces a solid and supportive tone in a variety of colors but is not annoyingly obtrusive. Choir and orchestra 2 are supported by a combination of a cabinet organ and harpsichord. There is no such thing as a perfect performance of as extensive and complex a work as the St Matthew Passion. Suzuki is sometimes given to tempos that I find too fast for the expressive solemnity of the subject matter. On the other hand, he often hits the right balance between flow and contemplation. The opening chorus of Part I is a prime instance where I believe he absolutely nails the tempo with a steady and solemn pulse that can hardly fail to touch the heart of the attentive listener. He assembles an impressive roster of soloists, and while some faults can be found here and there, it would be churlish to dwell on them.

Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948–2019) was the director of music at King's College from 1982 to 2019. During his tenure, it became the custom to present one of the Bach Passions each year. This recording was made in April of 2019. (Cleobury died in November.) It is apparently a concert recording in the college chapel. The date is given as April 14–16, so I assume that what we have is a compilation from more than one concert performance. At the risk of speaking ill of the recently deceased, I cannot say that I find Cleobury's performance particularly moving. I have made similar observations of other recordings by him, especially the St John Passion (King's 18; M/A 2018). There is no question that the performances are technically polished and impressive, but somehow they do not seem to get very far beneath the surface. Perhaps it is British reserve, or as I speculated in my review of the St John Passion, it all seems too much like business as usual for a choir and director accustomed to the daily routine of an Anglican choral foundation. Of the two performances under review, Suzuki's is by far the more subtle, with nuances of tempo and phrasing that impart a vital and engaging elasticity to the music. He can hardly be described as self–indulgently sentimental, but he is more likely than Cleobury to touch the heart of the listener. In the opening chorus, for instance, Cleobury's tempo is quick enough to make the music sound a bit perfunctory compared with Suzuki. Cleobury's soloists are very good, but not unqualifiedly so. James Gilchrist is outstanding as the Evangelist. Matthew Rose as Jesus is less impressive. His slightly gruff delivery sometimes seems more appropriate for Wotan than Jesus. In contrast, Christian Immler for Suzuki never fails to project the essential dignity and majesty of the part. There is one remarkable moment in the Last Supper segment of Part I that encapsulates the sensitivity of his performance. At the text "Wahrlich, ich sage euch..." (Truly, I say to you: one among you will betray me), Immler uncannily conveys the uneasiness of the moment without ever compromising the dignity of the speaker. Among Cleobury's aria soloists, Sophie Bevan is impressive as a light–toned early music soprano. Countertenor David Allsopp has a remarkably even tone that many countertenors lack, and he never sounds fruity, as Suzuki's Damien Guillon and Clint van der Linde sometimes do. Tenor Mark Le Brocq produces a very fine tone, but he seems strained on the upper notes of his part, making it sound more labored than it ought to. Bass William Gaunt has a more majestic tone than Matthew Rose. He discharges himself impressively in most of the bass solos, but I was disappointed with his final offering, the recitative 'Am Abend' and the aria 'Mach dich, Mein Herze Rein'. As a contemplation of the burial of Jesus, these numbers should be perhaps the most heartbreaking in the entire work, but here they are not. Apart from that, the soloist's voice sounds too distant—possibly a hazard of concert recording. Finally, Cleobury's tempo in the  concluding chorus makes it sound more like a slow waltz than a solemn tombeau.


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