The St Matthew Passion by Bach occupies a unique place in the world of music: its scale, intensity and expressive range set it apart even from the grandest operas, and yet it is music which was composed for the Good Friday service in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, where Bach was organist. The term "passion" refers to the story of Christ's suffering and crucifixion at Calvary; the bulk of the story is told by a tenor Evangelist and Christ's words are sung by a bass. As was traditional, verses from chorales are placed throughout the work, allowing the congregation to take part in the narrative, and solo singers and choruses are allowed the opportunity to comment or reflect on the action taking place.
This rather dry definition, while giving an impression of the different forms of music to be found herein, but words cannot even come close to the incredible dramatic force which Bach achieves in this work. The music ranges from breathtaking stillness (as in "Aus Liebe", sung by a soprano) to virtuoso solo singing ("Geduld", sung by the tenor, is a fine example), to grandly-scaled choruses (as in "O Mensch, bewein") and fabulously expressive writing for the Evangelist (whose part is incredibly demanding, calling for a top Bb right at the end of the work, after about 3 hours of singing!).
To bring this music to life is, it seems hardly necessary to say, a mammoth task. Not only must a conductor have at his disposal singers and instrumentalists of the highest quality, but also be able to control the drama and pace of a performance lasting over three hours. In the case of this recording, Herreweghe achieves these criteria in almost every respect, and this is a fine disc, although there are some disappointing aspects which should be balanced with the clear strengths.
To deal firstly with the pace and drama of the performance, Herreweghe does a very sound job. The tempos are varied, erring on the quicker side, but very few numbers feel rushed (it is disappointing that the wonderful bass aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein", is a little too fast, seeming too restless to my ears). Overall, though, there are very few complaints.
On the subject of singers and musicians, the picture is again largely very positive. The choir is, as a unit, excellent - perfectly in tune and very disciplined, although some of the "step-out" roles (where singers from the choir portray roles such as Herod, Peter and the High Priests) are less successful. The orchestra is outstanding 99% of the time, but it is very disappointing that the viola da gamba player on the bass aria "Komm, suesses Kreuz" seems to be suffering an asthma attack during the piece. While I am all in favour of performers engaging fully with the music, this "heavy breathing" is taking it a step too far.
But what of the soloists? Another reviewer on this page argues that the presence of Ian Bostridge (as the Evangelist) and counter-tenor Andreas Scholl should be enticement enough for any buyer, but I would counsel against getting one's hopes up too much. In the case of Scholl, his tone is, it must be said, fabulous, but at times I feel a little disconnected from the meaning of the music when listening to all this glorious sound - his "Erbarme Dich" is just too forthright to really communicate the sense of a plea for mercy. Bostridge is yet more troubling. I have heard live performances where he makes the most appalling hash of some of the difficult passages (yodelling like a lusty Swiss mountaineer), and he is quite simply far too self-indulgent far too often. While a sense of drama is vital to deliver this passage successfully, he veers at times dangerously close to histrionics, and often gets in the way of the narrative. And at other times his voice just is not very pleasant to listen to. The other singers are a mixed bag. Franz-Josef Selig (Christus), is very fine, with a massive, dark tone, and Werner Güra (tenor arias) is brilliant (he is far too under-rated in this country). The soprano soloist Sibylla Rubens sings beautifully, and is very musical. Less felicitous is the bass soloist Dietrich Henschel, who at times simply runs out of room at the bottom of his range (as in "Mache Dich"), and at others is too monochromatic and metallic to be pleasant to listen to.
So the question remains, can I recommend this CD? On balance, yes, and there is an enormous here to really enjoy. There are other fine recordings around, though (Anthony Rolfe-Johnson on Gardiner's recording is a more listenable Evangelist than Bostridge), so you might want to look at some more reviews before shelling out your £25 for this.