Tag Archives: SDG

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDTracks)

Nearly (But Not Quite) Perfect – Gardiner’s New Recording of Bach’s B-Minor Mass

Bach’s b-minor mass was the subject of one of my first blog posts nearly six months ago. I just love and admire this monumental work of beauty.

John Eliot Gardiner

I’m also a big fan of Gardiner. Many of his recordings with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of the classical and romantic symphonies are outstanding (e.g. his Schumann cycle), and his entire Bach cantata cycle with the Monteverdi choir is among my favorite versions.

The 2015 recording of the B-minor Mass (SDG 2015)

So when Gardiner released a new recording of the b-minor mass (his first dates back to 1985 for Deutsche Grammophon, still early days for the historically informed practice movement) I was all ears and have listened to it now for several times.

Obviously, a lot of thought and the experience gained from the entire cantata cycle went into this new recording (there is a great article about it in the November 2015 issue of Gramophone).

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

How does it compare to my reference version, Herreweghe’s 2012 recording? Well, it’s really very good, but doesn’t replace it. Let me try to explain why.

With this monumental work, one thing you need to get right is the balance between power and nuance. The old recordings of the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Otto Klemperer’s legendary version, or Karl Richter) are powerful grandiose affairs, and then you have other versions that very much limit the number of singers, resulting in a very light and transparent sound.

Gardiner choses something more on the lighter side (approx 30 singers), and also goes for a very clear and natural orchestral playing.

And here we get to the only minor bit of criticism to the otherwise beautiful and near perfect recording, very occasionally, I’d just like a little bit more power and brilliance, exactly what Herreweghe does.

Basically, the little additional sparkle, which he so often has in his cantata cycles, but here it feels somehow a little bit held back, not going at their full power.

Enough nitpicking, this is an excellent recording, and really worth checking out. But I’m in love with Herreweghe and will stick to his version for the moment.

My rating: 4 stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

UPDATE Dec 5: Gramophone really likes this album and gives it an Editor’s Choice in the December 2015 issue