In 1989 Gardiner interpreted Bach's St. Matthew Passion for the label, DG Archiv. Despite the-Gardiner-recording's evident bland, frigid, and impersonal aura (which to some people is called "period style performance"), this recording was called a standard- the rendition of the Matthauspassion to which all others would be compared.
Along with this controversial release were several others:
the cushy and romanticized Karajan release,
the very slow Klemperer release,
all of Harnoncourt's annoyingly unpolished releases,
and Bernstein's abridged English-language release.
Now Gardiner's recording can join Harnoncourt's in the period instrument platitude dominated by stiffness, uneffected orchestras and soloists, and overbearing use of staccato. This is because the St. Matthew Passion finally has a new, universally loved interpretation by Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi.
The key to Herreweghe's success in his release is approach of legato instead of staccato, and by taking a look at the very adventurous, enlightening, and well-organized CD-Rom which is part of this grand St. Matthew Passion package, you'll see Mr. Herreweghe has the knowledge to proove his beautiful approach.
(Harmonia Mundi's attractive package includes: the complete libretto, the complete St. Matthew Passion on three discs, and "The Birth of the St. Matthew Passion: An Interactive Journey" CD-Rom with numerous biographies, histories, scholarly notes, the complete Passion with pop-up libretto, and synopsises of each number of the Passion.)
Herreweghe also posesses what Gardiner doesn't, an astute judgement of tempo.
In contrast to Gardiner's impersonality in his St. Matthew Passion, Herreweghe's sense of the work's spitual contemplativeness is evident throughout, and in effect, the Choir and Orchestra of the Collegium Vocale create a very absorbing recording which is never tedious for a second, and Ian Bostridge's youthfully lithe Evangelist and Josef Selig's effective Christ finally make for a Matthauspassion where you don't find yourself skipping over the Recitatives.
All of the arias are favorites here thanks to the fine soloists, among them: male alto, Andreas Scholl.
The double chorus is correctly sized according to Bach's own preferences. In fact, Gardiner's choirs are oversized. Only Herreweghe's uses the correct proportions.
Harmonia Mundi's sound quality is clear as a bell. Both orchestras and both choirs are equally audible making every chorale, chorus, and turbae chorus very dramatic (compare to relatively poor sound quality of the Gardiner recording where the second choir is barely audible causing Gardiner's recording to lose it's weightiness especially in the Duo with Chorus "So ist mein Jesus nun Gefangen").
This is an overwhelmingly beautiful record, but Herreweghe also keeps in mind that this is sacred music, that is: it is written for the church, and he seems to balance everything out just perfectly.
Philippe Herreweghe's 3+1 CD set is strongly recommended to all Bach lover's alike. But if you still insist on hearing Gardiner's side of the story, buy Gardiner's Highlights of the St. Matthew Passion AND Herreweghe's Complete St. Matthew Passion.