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A few years ago, a startling Andrew Parrott recording of Bach's B minor Mass appeared with the double chorus singing one-to-a-part. I didn't much care for it, but it alerted me to the underlying scholarship (originating in a 1981 academic paper by the American conductor and keyboard player Joshua Rifkin).This had persuaded Parrott that, although Bach was on record as calling for a largish pool of singers for his choral forces, this was simply a tactic to ensure he always had sufficient technically able singers in good health to sing his music in Leipzig's churches. All the evidence pointed to the fact that the music was written to be performed one-to-a-part, therefore the two choruses required for the St Matthew Passion could total only eight singers.
Archiv's latest Matthew Passion recording (their sixth) is the first to fully implement the Rifkin/Parrott thesis and predictably it's Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Players who have risen to the challenge. As there are only eight singers in total I must honour them by naming them all: Deborah York, Julia Gooding, Magdalena Kozena, Susan Bickley, Mark Padmore (Evangelist), James Gilchrist, Peter Harvey and Stephan Loges. The generally fast speeds enable the work to be fitted onto two cds, and the recording (made in Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark) was the culmination of a series of live performances. Roskilde was picked in part because, as well as its great organ, it possesses two additional Marcussen organs which work at concert pitch and the lower Baroque pitch. The robust support these instruments provide immediately conjures a new sound world for the music.
Padmore is now the leading British Evangelist of his generation, but all eight singers rise impeccably to the twin challenges of distinctive solo arias and blending as a chorus. The set as a whole exudes an entirely captivating intimacy: the moments of highest drama, paradoxically, are enhanced and not diminished by the absence of a big chorus. Although some of the German pronunciation isn't quite perfect, I was enthralled by this performance; it suggests to me that the case made by Rifkin, Parrott and McCreesh is proven. Choral singers should not, of course, be deprived of the chance to sing this glorious music as part of big choirs. But in future we may be less willing to listen to them.
Like This? Try These:
Buxtehude: Sacred Cantatas
Haydn: Great Masses
Morimur: Hilliard Ensemble --Andrew McGregor
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