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Bach’s St Matthew Passion was probably first performed in 1727 in an early version, some years before he produced his autograph fair copy in 1736. The differences are small, the most substantial being the chorale that originally concluded Part 1, Jesum lass ich nicht von mir, which was replaced by the large-scale O Mensch bewein. other changes were limited to harmonic details, part-writing, allocation of solo voices and instruments.

Both the academy of ancient Music (AAM) and Yorkshire Baroque Soloists (YBS) here attempt to recreate the first performance, based on a manuscript copied by J.C. Farlau post-1750. However, the recordings reveal significant differences. First, resources: following Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, YBS use single strings and single voices (one to a part) whereas AAM use three violins in each orchestra and a line-up of 3-2-2-3 voices in each choir. Both deliver excellent performances from expert soloists, singers and players, with mostly well-judged recording balances, but the details are interesting to compare. For example, in the duet no.27a, So ist mein Jesum nun gefangen, Egarr takes the opportunity to excise the significant appoggiaturas, which are absent in the Farlau MS but present in Bach’s 1736 autograph. Conversely, Seymour assumes the appoggiatura convention was well known by 1727 and adds them throughout. it seems that both conductors use the performance uncertainties in the Farlau MS as opportunities for personal interpretation, while using Bach’s autograph when it suits them.

Seymour’s tempi seem right to my ears, although his chorales are often rather brisk for the expressive harmonies. Egarr’s tempi throughout are even brisker, leading to interpretations that border on the lightweight in places. He can also change tempi mid-movement rather wilfully, presumably for subjective rhetorical purposes. However, these are significant readings that inspire further thinking about this greatest of all Passions.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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