Bach: St. Matthew Passion (2CD)

Sony Classical
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Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic

For all of Leonard Bernstein's remarkably eclectic affinities, his legacy as a conductor is not often associated with Baroque music. Yet this remastered recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion--like that of his Bach concertos with Glenn Gould and others--is a moving document of musical and emotional empathy. True, Bernstein's stylistic approach (the frequently languorous tempos, the italicized effect accorded certain significant moments in Bach's richly textured drama) and employment of large-scale choral and orchestral forces have long since fallen out of favor in the wake of the "authentic- performance" movement. And purists will certainly object to the use of English texts as well as numerous cuts from the original score (mostly in Part Two). That said, Bernstein's reading has a thrilling cogency and dramatic consistency fully abetted by the New York Philharmonic's heartfelt playing as well as by the excellently prepared chorus. Listen to the subtly varied inflections of each recurrence of the chorale "O Lamb of God Most Holy" to signal the inexorable course of the tragedy, or to the devastating impact of the sorrowful final double chorus. The vocal soloists are unfortunately uneven, ranging from David Lloyd's erratic, hooty tenor as the Evangelist to the multidimensional Jesus characterized by bass William Wildermann. The set includes a bonus track of Bernstein discussing how Bach unfolds his vividly dramatic structure in the Passion. -- Thomas May