mon 20/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Handel, Pärt | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Handel, Pärt

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Handel, Pärt

An epic Passion, an iconic oratorio and choral music from a great Estonian

Rembrandt's drawing of Christ carrying the cross, a detail of which is reproduced on the Bach Collegium Japan's box cover


Bach St Matthew CleoburyBach: St Matthew Passion The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Academy of Ancient Music/Sir Stephen Cleobury (King’s College Cambridge)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki (BIS)

Both Masaaki Suzuki and the late lamented Sir Stephen Cleobury have recorded Bach's St Matthew Passion before. I struggled to choose between these two new versions, so thought it best to include both. Overall timings for both sets are, amazingly, just a few seconds apart, though BIS manage to squeeze Suzuki’s version onto just two discs. His account was taped under studio conditions in Japan last April, and features a small mixed choir and some luxury casting. Cleobury's, also from April 2019, is a live recording made during performances given in the Chapel of King’s College and uses a larger, male voiced choir. It's a matter of personal taste; at various points over the last few weeks I've swooned over Bach Collegium Japan’s warmth, flexibility and polish, then been floored by the glorious sharpness and bite of Cleobury’s boy trebles. In both performances there's a wonderfully clear separation between the two choirs, and there's handsome orchestral support for both conductors. Cleobury has the Academy of Ancient Music, its piquant solo winds especially arresting, and Suzuki's similarly sized ensemble includes his son Masato on organ.

Bach St matthew suzukiSuzuki's Evangelist is the young German tenor Benjamin Bruns, expressive and impassioned, while Cleobury has James Gilchrist, slightly less tonally alluring but really inhabiting the part. Carolyn Sampson is excellent for Suzuki, her “Aus Liebe” in Part 2 one of the set’s highlights, while Cleobury draws brilliantly characterised singing from Sophie Bevan. His countertenor David Allsopp is glorious in “Erbarme Dich”, but it's impossible to say whether he's preferable to Suzuki's Clint van der Linde. If pushed to choose one box set, right now, I'd probably go for Cleobury. There's a tension, a theatricality to his performance which thrills, and the bigger choruses have a weight and oomph that's emotionally overwhelming. If you'd have asked me last night, it might have been Suzuki, whose intensity and humanity offer rich rewards. Both recordings are handsomely packaged, richly recorded and well-documented. You're probably not going out much at the moment, so support the UK’s struggling classical record industry and buy the pair.

Handel Messiah RademannHandel: Messiah Gaechinger Cantorey/Hans-Christoph Rademann (Accentus)

A colleague who moonlights as a singer gave me some valuable insights as to what makes a good performance of Handel’s Messiah, and also prompted a mercifully quick listen to Thomas Beecham’s famous recording, the one using Eugene Goossens’ crazily inauthentic orchestration. A few minutes of that make most other performances sound excellent, and it was a relief to switch on this new recording, the neat, alert playing of the Gaechinger Cantorey’s orchestra one of its best features. Conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann keeps things bouncing along and his opting for Handel's first Dublin version makes it fit comfortably on a pair of CDs.

Accentus's recorded balance favours the higher voices, often disconcertingly so, and the choruses have plenty of lightness and energy. “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light” is a typical example, bright, cheery and positive, though oddly lacking in bass. “Hallelujah” begins in in comically subdued fashion, but quickly grows into something spectacular. Bass Tobias Berndt and alto Benno Schachtner stand out among the vocal soloists. This is a solid, enjoyable Messiah – it won't supplant Paul McCreesh’s DG version, but there's plenty to enjoy. Accentus's production values are impressive, with good documentation, full texts and typically cool sleeve art.

Part Ross DmitriStabat – Sacred music by Arvo Pärt, James MacMillan and Pēteris Vasks Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, The Dmitri Ensemble/Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi)

In essence an Arvo Pärt compilation with two well-chosen bonus tracks, this is an outstanding collection. I'd point newcomers towards a brilliant ECM disc collecting Pärt’s four symphonies, works which span his career and show just how dramatic his musical change of direction was. Pärt entered a spell of voluntary silence in the late 1960s, studying medieval music and emerging as a strikingly individual, initially unfashionable voice. 1985’s Stabat Mater is the biggest piece here, heard in a recent version for large mixed choir and string orchestra. How brilliantly and subtly Pärt builds the tension, the sopranos’ blistering  “et cruore filii” in the penultimate stanza both thrilling and agonising, the strings’ radiant closing hymn a perfect coda. This performance, from Graham Ross’s superbly drilled Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, is exceptional, and neatly accompanied by Ross’s own Dmitri Ensemble. Though I wish that the individual stanzas had been separately tracked. The four other Pärt works are scored for unaccompanied voices. Da Pacem, Domine is a solemn prayer for peace, and his 1989 Magnificat is more subdued rumination than affirmative shout. Especially striking is The Woman with the Alabaster Box, a sombre English-language setting of verses from the Gospel according to St Matthew. The choral sound throughout is superb, and the confidence with which these young singers attack the opening bars of the Nunc dimittis is jaw-dropping.

Pēteris Vasks’ wordless Plainscapes offers us a journey across the composer's native Latvia, the big skies and flat landscapes portrayed in music of widescreen magnificence. Vasks also knows how to make his case slowly, the ecstatic outbursts near the work’s close exhilarating and overwhelming. Violinist Jamie Campbell and cellist Oliver Coates offer unflagging, passionate support. James MacMillan’s Misere makes for an interesting contrast. Initially dark and brooding, MacMillan’s faith prompts him to let rip near the end. Marvellous – this is serious stuff, but thoroughly accessible with it.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters