Bach: Matthew Passion – Amici Voices

Bach: Matthew Passion
Amici Voices
Filmed in St John’s, Smith Square
First broadcast 3 April 2021

Before the 2020 Covid-19 sequence of lockdowns, the run-up to Easter in London was musically dominated by the St John’s, Smith Square series of concerts. These traditionally culminated in a Messiah and one of the Bach Passions for the final two sell-out concerts. The concert recorded there by Amici Voices and first broadcast on Easter Saturday was as far removed from previous years as you can get. Their Matthew Passion was performed in the round in the middle of the space with no audience. It was a very refreshing alternative to the usual Easter fare.

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Bach: St John & Matthew Passions

JS Bach: St John Passion
 The Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James’ Baroque, James O’Donnell
Westminster Abbey. 16 April 2019

JS Bach: St Matthew Passion
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square. 17 April 2019

Hearing Bach’s two best-known Passions on successive evenings in two nearby venues, and with contrasting performers, gave me a chance to compare aspects of the two Passions and performing styles. One was given by a choir with a 600-year history, the other by a choir approaching its 50th anniversary.  Both used period instrument orchestras. They were given in very different conditions to the performances of Bach’s day, and to very different groups of people – Bach to an involved congregation with a reasonable unified belief system, us as a passive audience with a variety of beliefs. However much a present-day believer might know the story that Bach sets to music, few will understand the context of early 18th-century Lutheran theological thought in Saxony. Non-believers or doubters will find the text at best puzzling, and at worse an illogical fabrication based on generations of earlier and equally illogical myth-makers. Continue reading

Bach: Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Padmore
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 31 March 2018

During Easter Saturday, I watched a broadcast from Berlin of the powerful Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars staging of the St Matthew Passion that I had reviewed back in 2014 at the Proms. And in the evening, an unstaged, but equally powerful Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance in Basingstoke’s Anvil. The common factor was Mark Padmore, appearing as the Evangelist and, in the case of the OAE, as director. I don’t object in principle to stagings of the Bach Passions. Sellar’s use of the space in and around the orchestras was very effective, and I also liked Jonathan Miller’s inspiringly human reading in the mid-1990s, and Deborah Warner’s 2000 ENO staging of the St John Passion, which drew the audience directly into the unfolding drama. But sometimes just being presented with the music itself, without additional layering, is the way to focus on the complex human emotions that Bach portrays.  Continue reading

Bach: St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, James Gilchrist, Kati Debretzeni,John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG725. 2CDs. 2h40′

Some 28 years after their famed 1988 Archiv recording (made under studio conditions in Snape Maltings), the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists return to the St. Matthew Passion. This extraordinary piece can evoke enormous emotional responses, regardless of the religious views of the listener. I vividly remember taking my young daughter to a performance of their 1988 Matthew, sitting in the front row, and watching the bass player just a few yards away gently shedding tears as she played. For this version, on their own label, they opt for a live recording, made in Pisa Cathedral during the Anima Mundi Festival as the culmination of a six-month tour.  Continue reading