John Eliot Gardiner's ground-breaking Archiv recording of the St. Matthew Passion was made in 1988 at Snape Maltings, with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. Twenty-eight years later he took those same musicians on tour in Europe, and in their stop at Pisa on September 21-22, 2016 SDG recorded this live version.
At the time of the original recording everyone noted how brisk Gardiner's tempi were. The total time was just over 157 minutes. While SDG manages to fit the work on only two CDs rather than the original three, Gardiner has relaxed just a tiny bit, with a new total time of 161 minutes. This music still has the same drive, the same dancing quality. Gardiner's vision was always more dramatic than devotional, and the urgency of the first version remains in the new one. "You feel you are being taken by the scruff of the neck," Gardiner says of his experience of the work, "and required to confront big issues - the nature of kingship, of identity, or of what happens when truth faces falsehood." That quote is from Gardiner's 2013 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, which is for me the New Testament of Bach scholarship. In the new version The Monteverdi Choir is just as tight and disciplined as in the original, with new levels of subtlety and often more dramatic shading this time around. The strong group of soloists, led by James Gilchrist as The Evangelist and Stephan Loges as Jesus, tell their stories in a thrilling way, and Bach provides many ways for his audience to reflect on their meaning. "Without any concession to theatrical gimmickry," says Gardiner in his book, "Bach provides his audience with a magnificent display of dramatic re-enaction." He says, further, that Bach approached his task "with the flair of the born dramatist." This flair the great composer shares with Sir John Eliot Gardiner today.
|Sheila Rock's 1998 photograph of John Eliot Gardiner, in the National Portrait Gallery|