We have grown accustomed to urgent, almost breathless, retellings of the Passion story, with brisk tempi hurtling the narrative along, so it was a treat to hear Raphaël Pichon’s spacious, luxuriously upholstered St Matthew Passion for the Festival de Pâques, Aix-en-Provence. Of the many Bach performances available online this Easter, few could claim to be quite so richly augmented as this stream, which saw a cast of outstanding soloists join the period-instrument players and choir of Ensemble Pygmalion in the sumptuous grandeur of the Église de la Madeleine for a radiantly transcendent rendition of one of Western music’s greatest monuments.

Raphaël Pichon conducts Ensemble Pygmalion
© Caroline Doutre

Pichon’s tempi were no doubt partly driven by the need to take account of the bathroom acoustics of the church, but perhaps also by a desire to make this a truly reflective, intimate and intense account.

But whatever a conductor may aim for, the level of intensity in any Passion performance springs chiefly from the Evangelist, and here Pichon had a supreme exponent in Julian Prégardien, son of the great Christophe, and a singer of quite exceptional quality. His was no strangled, anguished Evangelist, but a warmer, gentler, sorrowful storyteller who perfectly embodied the heartbroken St Matthew as he recalled the dreadful progress of Christ’s capture, torture and death.

As the music unfolded it became clear that Pichon had chosen similarly light and flexible voices to match Prégardien’s in the solo arias, giving the whole performance a natural buoyancy. His Christus, Stéphane Degout, whose baritone has the sheen of burnished mahogany, sang with implacable resolution throughout, and also took the lion’s share of the bass arias, culminating in a melting account of the lilting, closing “Mache dich, mein Herze rein”.

Raphaël Pichon conducts Ensemble Pygmalion
© Caroline Doutre

With chattering oboes alongside her, soprano Sabine Devieilhe made an immediate impression in “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken”, the crystalline purity of her voice perfect for the floating entry of “Aus Liebe, will mein Heiland sterben”. She had made a perfect partnership with alto Lucile Richardot in the duet “So ist mein Jesus”, with the double chorus making crisply urgent interjections as Jesus is led away from the Garden of Gethsemane.

Richardot took all the alto arias, bar “Können Tränen meiner Wangen”, which was assigned to Tim Mead. The fact that one of Europe’s leading countertenors was kept waiting two hours to sing one aria is a measure of the luxury casting of this performance. It was worth the wait, of course, and – like all the other soloists – he made a significant contribution to the chorus parts, joining the impressive tenors Reinoud Van Mechelen and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, who shared the four tenor arias.

While at first it seemed odd not to use Mead more, the sheer quality of Richardot’s astonishing alto must have been difficult for Pichon to resist. She seems to have everything: a dark chocolate quality throughout the register, real poise, pinpoint intonation and a welcome lack of vibrato.

The choir of Ensemble Pygmalion, augmented by the soloists, made a splendidly rich and beautifully balanced chorus, enhanced by the fresh young voices of the Maîtrise de Radio France, taking the ripieno parts. This choir is coached by Sofi Jeannin, chief conductor of the BBC Singers, who auditions and trains teenagers from 29 nationalities in one of Paris’s most challenging arrondissements. Wouldn’t it be great if the BBC started something similar here in Britain?

This performance was reviewed from the Festival de Paques video stream