Following English langauge recordings of Bach's Biblical (and operatic) passion story from Kouzzevitsky (1937), Bernstein's chopped up account from 1962, and David Willcocks' beautifully-sung 1978 statement, Jeffrey Skidmore and Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra present this rendition recorded in concert on Good Friday 2009 in Birmingham, England of Bach's entire religious masterpiece. Using a period band and a style that may have been used in Bach's time -- soloists that step from the choir for their appearances, then return to their parts -- and a mixed professional and amateur force, Skidmore has succeeded in updating the passion for 21st century ears and sensibilities.
Skidmore founded Ex Cathedra 40 years ago and has been its director more than two decades. He is largely unknown outside the UK, being in USA the opposite of a household name for collectors of sacred choral music whose collections overflow with recordings led by the likes of Gardiner, Rilling and Robert Shaw.
I first became aware of them by listening to their rendition of Vivaldi choral masterpieces that includes a number of my favorites. I was completely taken with their presentations of the vespers -- which are evening performances, if you didn't know.
In Bach's sacred choral masterpiece, the singers are all youthful and none are international names yet they all perform more than admirably. I have performed the St. Matthew Passion twice with a university and my local choral society and I would have been privileged to sing with any of the principals in this group.
There is a failing or two in the package, mostly the result of lack of enunciation by performers. For English speakers, it is not always possible to make out all the words of the choir or some soloists without resorting to the 32-page booklet with full English text and bios of all the performers. The Jesus and evangelist roles are usually best in this regard with the evangelist -- sung by tenor Jeremy Budd -- being one of the most outstanding solo performances.
On balance, the plusses outweigh the negatives, among which are the moderate overall tenor of the performance and the whole thing fitting comfortably on two disks instead of three that comes in slimline packaging, not one of the those bulky, hefty boy CD boxes. Another notable point is the text chosen for the performance is colloquial 21st century English with nary a thou, as if Bach were reborn in the new century. This won't please everyone but it presented no problem of any kind for me. The sound is good, captured in the immediacy of concert in a Birmingham's Symphony Hall where the recording technicians did a good job with an occasional balance issue.
This period style performance is not legionnaire; the solo singers convert to vibrato, for instance, while the strings play sans vibrato. If you seek a modern Enlgish language recording of the St. Matthew Passion, I think you will be satisfied with this. However, if you have been in love with Klemperer's romanticized version for 40 years or if you believe Wilcocks' still wonderful 1978 conception is the pinnacle, this may not be your cup of tea. It presents an interesting contrast to those performances, in any event.