Bach: St John Passion, Bach: St Matthew Passion


St John Passion

John Eliot Gardiner

(Soli Deo Gloria, 2 CDs)


St Matthew Passion

Netherlands Bach Society

(Channel Classics, 3 CDs)

Tradition has it that the St John Passion is the poor relation of the longer, more “finished” St Matthew Passion. Listening to these two recordings, you wonder whether tradition got it right.

Gardiner’s latest version of the St John, taped in Germany in 2003 with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, has greater clarity and consistency than his 1986 studio recording – and more spiritual depth. In the intervening quarter-century he has learned to be patient with the music, but the rhythms remain nicely sprung and there is no period-style point-making. The exquisitely balanced choir (6-4-4-4) includes the two soprano soloists, Joanne Lunn and Katharine Fuge, whose contributions are sublime – but then, so is Bernarda Fink’s mezzo aria “Es ist vollbracht!” and Mark Padmore’s wonderfully sustained Evangelist.

The Netherlands Bach Society’s St Matthew Passion, recorded live last Easter, is packaged with a book of liturgical art from the Catharijneconvent Museum of Utrecht, so that if you are following the text, you are accompanied by several centuries of Passion images. The performance itself, directed by Jos van Veldhoven, has just what you would expect from a scholarly Dutch ensemble – all the modern trappings of early music practice (nine soloists doubling as chorus, plus eight additional singers) married to the sombre mood of Lutheran tradition. The soloists are a mixed bunch: the alto aria “Erbarme dich”, for example, sounds diminished here when sung by a meagre-voiced countertenor.

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