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Briefly Noted: Pichon's Pygmalion Passion (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Bach, St. Matthew Passion, J. Prégardien, Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon

(released on March 25, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902691.93 | 2h42
Raphaël Pichon's ensemble Pygmalion, founded in 2006, is another early music group I have been following closely in recent years. Although they have yet to make the trip to Washington, we have had plenty of chances to hear them via stream and recording. The group has released some fine Bach discs over the years, all with a specific goal in mind. As Pichon put it in an interview about their newest recording, "When I founded Pygmalion, I had a single certainty, one big dream: that we would give our first St. Matthew Passion for our tenth birthday." That is exactly what happened in 2016, with most of the musicians who ended up being recorded on this excellent set at sessions in April 2021 at the Philharmonie de Paris.

Pichon calls this "a consciously choral performance," with the solo singers also serving as section leaders in what is an exquisite choral sound. As the finishing touch, fifteen young singers from the Maîtrise de Radio France take the chorale tunes woven into the complex textures of the opening and closing movements of Part I, a part marked by Bach as "soprani in ripieno." The solo parts range from very good to excellent, with soloists from each choir taking the arias as Bach indicated and some of the characters named in dialogues given to other chorus members. The two superb sopranos, Sabine Devieilhe (whose solo album with Pygmalion has also been in my ears recently) and Hana Blažíková, lead the topmost sections of Choir I and II, respectively, as well as splitting the soprano arias.

Mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is sublime in "Erbarme dich," as she was when she sang with Ensemble Correspondances recently. (She sang with the Maîtrise de Radio France in her youth, which is a nice connection to the young performers in the group now.) Julian Prégardien takes the part of the Evangelist with authority and beauty of tone, while baritone Stéphane Degout brings a plangent resonance to the part of Jesus, wreathed in its halo of strings. The instrumental contributions are all lovely, especially the soft flutes. The continuo realization has a pleasing variety, split among organ, harpsichord, and theorbo, all used quite inventively. Pichon has thought deeply about this massive score, which he has spoken about in interviews. There is no small chorale or bit of recitative that does not reflect the conductor's care for it, such as the last chorale in the work, "Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden," performed by the singers alone after the death of Christ. This marvelous rendition is both full-textured and brimming with the intimacy of historically informed performance practice.

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