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on 14 April 2008
The sheer quality and accuracy of instrumental playing is quite wonderful on this recording - slightly superior even to the already supremely high standards for Gardiner or Suzuki. The solo singing is also notable for incredibly accurate intonation - in particular from the very firm Bass/Baritone of Matthew Brook, in my opinion the finest Jesus I have heard in any recording. The house-style here is period singing of the sort that eschews vibrato to a very large extent. Clearly the idea of one-per-part in the choir will put buyers off. I can only urge that any Bach fans who are not doctrinaire about 1-p-p give this recording a try - the benefits in clarity in the big contrapuntal numbers are immense, and to my ears the chorales are more interesting and human when I can hear individual voices rather than a blended choir sound. Paul McCreesh's version of the Matthew Passion is also 1-p-p and is very fine also in parts and keenly dramatic but, as the previous reviewer hints, he adopts some extreme tempos and has some mannered touches.

At the moment this would be my desert island Matthew Passion despite how good Gardiner and Suzuki both are. I have no "authentic/period" axe to grind and found that the slight changes to instrumentation in this recording (it claims rather self-importantly to be the first recording of Bach's 1742 version) were too minor to notice - apart from the presence of a Harpsichord in the opening chorus. The reason to buy this set is not due to it being authentic but because it features the most exquisite playing and singing.

Critical reaction in the press, at least that I have read, was somewhat lukewarm in comparison to the accolades heaped on the Dunedin consort's Handel Messiah (many critics do still have a 1-p-p vs larger choir axe to grind). Don't let that put you off, this is very special indeed. The recorded sound is also extremely clear and of the highest modern standards.
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on 23 March 2008
John Butt is a respectable Bach scholar and he has done a great deal of work with regard to Bach's vocal scoring in the two Passions. Here for the second time on record (I think) he has used the OVPP (one voice per part) for his performance of St Matthew Passion. Six concertists, Jesus, Evangelist and two soprano repienists constitute the entire vocal force. It works brilliantly to convey both senses of intimacy and austerity in Bach's score. This is matched by Butt's fluid pacing of the music and the performer's lucid diction (no operative singing style here) and the result is a most refreshing and natural sounding Matthew Passion that I have heard in years. Highly recommended as an alternative to usual HIP recordings of this music such as Herreweghe's, Gardiner's, or even the more self-consciously dramatic McCreesh (the first OVPP recording).
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on 20 September 2015
I acquired this recording having long had on my shelves the Gramophone-recommended Harnoncourt (2001) account which, for some reason or another, I’ve seldom ever played. Harnoncourt has a dream cast of soloists and well established credentials in Bach going back decades. All good then? - in principle, yes, and I can see why Gramophone may have recommended it. But in practice, it was just not something I ever found myself listening to. Having now listened to, and enjoyed immensely, John Butt’s version with the Dunedin consort, I can begin to see why.

Butt takes us into a world of Bach that is brightly-lit and fresh-sounding. This is thanks to his fresh-sounding soloists, a brilliantly clear and close-up recording, and his adoption of a one voice per part approach. Debate about the historical correctness of the one voice per part approach, as used here, and whether or not Bach would have wanted it this way, can distract from the obvious advantages such an approach can bring, and which are abundant in this recording, namely greater immediacy, very much a case of less being more.

But I am not won over to this recording on the grounds of academic argument. I am won over by its sheer satisfying musicality. In this regard, the use of youthful-sounding soloists has paid off for nowhere is there the kind of over-studied feel that can creep in when big international names are used. Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist is an absolute pleasure throughout. There are none of the lieder-like mannerisms that one gets with Ian Bostridge or James Gilchrist is such roles. Mulroy relies on the sheer plangent quality of his tenor to hold our attention. Matthew Brook as Jesus should also be mentioned for the steady quality of his singing.

Some may find soprano Susan Hamilton on the bright side. I found her singing very suggestive of a boy treble and I couldn't help wondering if Butt was trying to suggest the sound world of Bach's Thomaskirche in which boy soloists would have featured? When approached from this angle, her singing takes on a different meaning.

Something else worth mentioning is how Butt opts for flowing tempi that keeps the musical drama moving along. In this he scores over Harnoncourt who, in some arias, can take as much as half a minute longer. For instance, Buß und Reu comes in at 4’47” for Harnoncourt and 4’14” for Butt. Ich will dir mein Herze schenken plays at 3’42” for Harnoncourt and 3’09” for Butt.

I recognize that others may have differing ideas about how Bach ought to sound. If you are insistent on having a period account with full choir then there are several options to choose from: Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Bruggen, Koopman or Herreweghe et al. However, over the years I’ve not found any of these to be as immediate-sounding or as musically-satisfying as this one.
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This masterpiece evokes personal passions, including that particular empathy and bonding with particular performances that "speak to me" - no doubt most ardent listeners will recognise the feeling. Bach's music does this. I wonder if somehow the first time one hears a sculptural and profound Bach work which goes to the heart, so to speak, it does something permanent to the brain's firmware, a kind of imprinting, as happens to birds learning their birdsong. Just so with St Matthew's Passion. Therefore, my enjoyment of this version is definitely biased by what I have enjoyed before. I definitely prefer the more flowing and period-piece sound which this agrees with, compared with older performances. Though I make a particular exception for the incredible Jacques version, sung with intimate perfectionism (and sung in English to boot - which in any other performance I cannot abide) at a poetically flowing, though slower, pace. But this is all just background bias.

Since becoming imprinted with the iconic Gardiner version, it has been difficult for me to hear other recordings with much empathy.

But...This fantastic performance led by Butt is a breath of fresh air to me.
Dealing with some sonic issues to get them out of the way: at first I listened to it on the SACD layer, using digital multichannel in, through my home surround system (Denon / Denon / Mission 78x series), which usually brings out very satisfactory nuance and clarity via Audyssey-calibrated channel balance. However, the sound was HORRIBLY unbalanced. Extremely tinny and edgy with excessive high frequency harmonics, and boomy bass. After checking the system calibration, and playing some of my other SACDs (Akiko Suwanai playing Walton and Sibelius, Haitink Beethoven, LSO Live Sibelius, for example), I found the problem lies with this Bach SACD. Switching to reading the disc from the CD layer, however, was very nice indeed, though the soloists are as noted by others somewhat forward, and at first there seems to be a little bit too much strident unnaturally sharpened edginess to the mastering generally. But one gets used to it by partway through the first CD. You would just have to see which of the layers worked best for you.

Then turn the volume down slightly. It feels like having the performance sung intimately in one's own personal chapel. Really impressive.

I found the Chorales to be well-balanced with the intimacy of the performance, like a small cast of players illustrating the Passion for a small group of awestruck listeners in a secluded chapel supported by really competent baroque instrumental consort and more than a little sense of authentic experience. Fantastic choral singing by such a small chorus.

Clarity, expression, and phrasing by the Evangelist Micholas Mulroy is absolutely in keeping with this performance, truly spellbinding one into the impetus of the story.

I became totally convinced by the Aria: Erbarme dich, mein Gott (CD2, Tr15) sung by alto Clare Wilkinson: "Herze und Auge weint vor dir Bitterlich" - [the heart and these eyes weep bitterly before You].

Susan Hamilton's soprano purity with recorder accompaniment was utterly exquisite in the Aria: Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben [Out of love my Saviour is willing to die] (CD2, Tr 28). The immediate drama and shock of the subsequent call to crucifixion was played and sung to perfection, in perfect (and tasteful) contrast to the purity and wonderment of the preceding aria.

I was smitten by the slightly tremulous poignant voice of alto Annie Gill, in the Aria: Können Tränen meiner Wangen Nichts erlangen [If the tears of my cheeks cannot achieve aught..]. Flowing, and pure, and trembling with piety and self-sacrifice.

Matthew Brook's rendition of Jesus was as good in its way as I've ever heard. Also, in the illuminatory Aria: Komm, süsses Kreuz ["Come sweet cross"], his clarity of revelation of the example of the cross is beautifully convincing with just the right amount of passion. His success, as Jesus conveying profound loss, sadness and resigned anguish in his appeal "Eli Eli Lama Asabthani", is inwardly heartrending.

The interplay between Matthew Brook and the instrumental consort would surely have delighted Bach himself, in the invocation Aria: Mache dich, mein Herze, rein [make yourself pure, my heart].

I said that one has to get used to this version. mainly, it is the ambience. But there is this other thing - about the phrasing in the first chorus - where the sung imperatives (Look!; Look at Him!; Look!, etc) are each followed by an exaggerated pause before the response (At whom? How? At What? etc). This is IMO overegged a bit, and took me some getting used to. But it does work after a fashion. Again, I think it's fine and in keeping with the dialogue exchange concept throughout this version. Just that some might not like it at first.

In short, this is a superbly conceived balanced and compelling new performance, one which I whole-heartedly commend.
I am not prepared to deduct anything for the possible sonic problems in SACD layer, which one will not encounter in CD layer. After all, I would readily give 5 stars to the heritage Jacques version with its far greater technical limitations.
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on 11 April 2009
Top quality performance and recording. Choir sound particularly good - singing and playing full of energy and impact. Soloists good. Highly recommended - must be among the top St Matthew Passion recordings available.
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on 16 April 2015
My wife went to a course at Sarum College, in Salisbury, about the Bach Passions and the course leader played some of this recording. She fell in love with it and so have I. The soloists are great as well as the Dunedin Consort and Players. I have to add that any opportunity to listen to Clare Wilkinson singing is always rewarded. She has a wonderful alto voice.
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on 16 June 2014
One voice per part may be very authentic and I have a very good B minor Mass recording done this way, but here the voices sound too far forward in the balance of the recording to sound natural in the full chorus items, although the arias and recits sound fine. There are also occasions when some of the instruments sound too closely mic'ed. Another quibble, also related to the 'one voice per part' practice is that parts of the opening chorus some rather mannered. Let's hope JEG brings out a recording with the Monteverdi Choir soon.
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on 12 June 2012
I obviously realized this recording uses' one voice per part' approach but it comes with built-in limitations which I have found more significant than expected when I bought these discs.Lack of contrast between solo and chorus made me yearn for a more traditional line-up.If you can cope with this approach there is plenty to admire here, though soloists are certainly not the ultimate and instrumentally it's a bit lightweight.
The recording is also less than ideal, with singers sounding too close and the orchestra in the distance - nothing new here then!Quality of sound is also somewhat clinical with a metallic edge to it. So all in all there is a lack of gravitas.
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on 27 June 2012
The St Matthew Passion is a work I can listen to time and time again and not get tired of it, even though I am a sceptical agnostic. I also have the versions by Klemperer (vinyl!), Richter (1958 and 1980) and Harnoncourt (2000), and my own recording of the BBC broadcast of a performance in 2010 by Simon Rattle.

I bought this one as a download from Linn Records as the 24-bit 88.2 kHz "studio master" flac. Such versions need something better than the average computer sound-card and I listen through an At-Tunes SB+ "streamer". The improvement over standard CD quality is audible (I have no experience of SACD). Unfortunately it reveals a few shortcomings in this production: there is a slight problem with the musical balance. The singers are given too much amplification, or are too closely miked, so that they sometimes protrude from the overall texture or mask the instruments to some extent. Indeed this may be inevitable in a one-voice-to-a-part performance.

In fact, despite rave reviews elsewhere, I am not convinced by this mode of performance. The distinction between chorus and soloists is important to the drama of this work, and here it is difficult to tell them apart. The Dunedin Consort's playing is generally excellent, the singers are good but bring little interpretive depth, the overall effect is lightweight and in some places such as the "Blitzen und Donner" chorus, very lightweight. John Butt's tempi are generally sensible, although I find the bass aria "Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder" hurried.

This is a musical, well integrated and very interesting performance. But to me it lacks one vital element: passion! If you want a period-instrument performance of this wonderful work, I suggest Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 2000 recording, which does have the necessary interpretive depth and drama. The same can be said for Karl Richter's 1980 recording on modern instruments and with outstanding soloists.
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on 11 February 2016
Radio 3's Building a Library choice.
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