From the word go, the Dunedin Consort draws you in.
Charlotte Gardner 2008
Fresh from the success of their double award winning Messiah, the Dunedin Consort and John Butt are back with another historically-informed 'first', this time Bach's final revision of the Matthew Passion. Broadly, this means the substitution of a harpsichord for one of the normal two organs, plus changes in the vocal numbers and combinations.
From the word go, the Dunedin Consort draws you in. The instruments are perfectly balanced, the playing is soulful, there are subtle swells, and the lilting tempo strikes a happy medium between pace and sobriety. So, nothing to dislike in the instrumental department, and everything to love. As for the vocal, the debate over how many voices to a part (three to four, or one) Bach used or wanted has raged for a good quarter of a century and no doubt will continue for some time to come. For the purposes of this review, you just need to know that John Butt falls squarely in the single-voice-to-a-part camp. This will mean that, if you're used to a traditional choral performance, the entry of the voices will take you by surprise, sounding quite thin in comparison to your expectations and to the full instrumental sound. Give it a chance, though, as it doesn't take long for the ears to adjust, and then you'll begin to appreciate that what is lost in body is gained in the clarity of the beautifully sung vocal lines and the transparent texture. My one quibble would be with some of the chorales. With their observations for today’s believer I expect, even crave, to be lifted to another spiritual plain, but it doesn’t always feel as though the singers' bodies and souls have completely surrendered to the passion of these extraordinary words. That said, there are some lovely solo moments, such as Clare Wilkinson’s Erbarme dich.
Essentially, whether you love this recording will boil down to how you feel about one-voice-to-a-part Bach. However, even if you’re not usually a fan, such is the quality of sound, you may end up being converted.