Recorded some seven months before his death, this St Matthew Passion to a large extent reflects many of the qualities for which Sir Stephen Cleobury will be remembered. An Anglican penchant for doing things “decently and in order” could well characterise his musical outlook, together with a propensity for avoiding risk-taking. On both these scores he is well supported by his famous chapel choir, whose sound and style he nurtured over his 37-year tenure at King’s, and by the Academy of Ancient Music for whom this work forms part of their musical DNA.
Cleobury’s conception of this masterpiece is essentially conservative, although coloured by developments in historically informed performance over the last 60 years. His choice of soloists confirms this ambivalence. He is fortunate to have James Gilchrist as his evangelist. Gilchrist, an alumnus of the King’s choir, brings clarity and insight to the role, engaging the listener. Matthew Rose, as Jesus brings an operatic demeanour that is at odds with the prevailing soundscape. The same could be said for tenor Mark Le Brocq, whose O Schmerz and ensuing Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen are laboured. These two numbers point up a general lack of flexible dramatic energy across the performance that really cannot be remedied by overlaid emotional effects. Fortunately, the other main soloists (soprano Sophie Bevan, countertenor David Allsopp and bass William Gaunt) are more sympathetic to Bach’s ebb and flow of outer storytelling and inner reflection.
If ever there were a work which needs to be more than the sum of its parts, the St Matthew Passion is it. While there is some good singing and fine playing here, listeners may find themselves wanting more.
Work: St Matthew Passion
Performers: The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Academy of Ancient Music/Sir Stephen Cleobury
Label: King’s College KGS0037 (2CD)