By conductor Raphael Pichon it's like experiencing the St Matthew Passion for the first time (●●●●●)

Thank God we can go again. After two largely unpassionate years, churches and concert halls will fill up again in the coming weeks for performances of JS Bach’s two passions: oratorios about the suffering of Christ (before and during the crucifixion). Two hundred performances reports the ‘passion barometer‘ who meticulously pricks the dipstick year after year in the passion land of the Netherlands. And guess what? Our passion tradition is experiencing a glorious rebirth after two corona years. However, there is significantly less enthusiasm for editing. Fewer children’s passions, less abbreviated versions, less sing-along-Matthäussen. But that was a predictable trend. This year we do not want shorter or easier, we finally want the real deal again: three hours of Bach, the annual immersion in cathartic beauty.

Gardiner’s new ‘John’

Two important CD releases echo the hurray in the halls. Conductor and Bach celebrity and biographer John Eliot Gardiner has recorded both the ‘Matthäus’ and the ‘John Passion’ several times before. The new ‘John Passion‘ under his direction (with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists of course) is a live product from the corona time; a reminder of Good Friday 2021 from the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford.

This location is worth mentioning because it gave the already dramatic ‘John Passion’ an extra theatrical glow: Pontius Pilate spoke straight from the balcony, literally over Jesus’ head.

If you’re looking for a clean performance of Bach’s ‘John’: don’t opt ​​for this performance. You hear (and see on the DVD) that the musicians worked remotely. For example in the fierce but not equally tight turbae (short screaming choirs by noisy people). But in the affected atmosphere of oppression and humanity, this is a ‘Johannes’ to listen to with interest.

An intimate chorale like ‘Wer hat dich so schlagen’ has an urgent intensity. The already mentioned turbae are sung with explosive urgency. You hear that Gardiner was shocked by the recent storming of the Capitol (January ’21) and that he wanted to emphasize the parallel between the rampaging mobs around Jesus and the present. Also notable (and a by-product of corona): all the soloists are British and of varying quality – also in German diction. Nick Pritchard is an elegant and engaged evangelist, soprano Julia Doyle radiant in the arias. Bas William Thomas is an unusually youthful Christ. Tenor Peter Davoren turns the ‘rainbow aria’ ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ into a dramatic key aria with varyingly successful but certainly daring variations.

Olympic Passion Games

The high-gloss sophistication and international premier league singers you miss at Gardiner draw the first’St Matthew Passion’ by Raphael Pichon and his Ensemble Pygmalion† It is perfectly possible to argue about taste in baroque music, but little can be said to put things into perspective about the rustling dance elegance of Pichon’s interpretation, the graceful phrasing, the polished perfection of the singers and musicians.

Pichon opts for fast tempos and great dynamic contrasts. Despite the deceptively dancing rhythm, the opening chorus ‘Kommt Ihr Töchter’ drags you into the passion story with exaggerated violin sighs and compelling scales in the basses, after which the chorus effortlessly picks up on that urgency. Julien Prégardien is a dream evangelist: agile in the high, warm in the low. The native German is an added treat. But above all, Prégardien’s lecture is a delight of sensitivity and intelligence. Extremes between intimacy and drama drive you to the edge of your seat: as if you are being sung for the first time to the well-known Passion from betrayal and denial to entombment. But Prégardien remains the narrator. He never steals the emotion out of the mouth of the aria singers. The prickly ear effect of his lecture also applies to its continuo support: unusually rich and colourful.

Pichon engaged a star cast of solo singers in full vocal bloom: no younger than thirty, bass Christian Immler (51) the oldest. The soloists reinforce the two choirs of sixteen singers each; Sufficient mass is thus achieved in the large choral scenes (only ‘Sind Blitze, Sind Donner’ may start a bit thin), while the maneuverability required by Pichon’s tempos is also guaranteed. Sabine Devieilhe brings with her radiant soprano with paradise-like clarion register almost ideal performances of ‘Blute nur’, ‘Aus Liebe’ and ‘Ich will dir mein Herze’. Stéphane Degout is a Christ with depth and edges of tormented humanity. Mezzo Lucile Richardot is a striking choice with her somewhat metallic-kelly timbre, but the virtuosity of ‘Buss und Reu’ (fast!) and ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ are just as in good hands with her as the emotion-bombing of ‘Bad Dich’.

And so not a single link is stiff in this Olympic, intelligent, well-oiled ‘Matthäus’. The insights of the historical performance practice are internalized, purist corners are auctioned off, the recording (from the Pierre Boulez hall) is layered. The corals are silent reflection points, the turbae sharp but controlled. So much perfection: it has something almost temple-like unapproachable. But what a beauty.

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