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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Johannes-Passion (BWV 245) (version 1724)

Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Sarah Connolly, contralto; James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Christopher Purves, Ashley Riches (Pilate), Matthew Rose (Jesus), bass
Academy of Ancient Music; Choir of the AAM
Dir: Richard Egarr

rec: April 1 - 5, 2013, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill
AAM Records - AAM002 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.44'37")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

[Choir of the AAM] Charmian Bedford, Emma Brain-Gabbott, Elizabeth Drury, Philippa Hyde, soprano; Jacqueline Connell, Ruth Gibbins, Susanna Spicer, contralto; Michal Czerniawski, alto; Malcom Bennett, James Geer, Edmund Hastings, Michael Solomon Williams, tenor; Michael Bundy, Richard Latham, Charles Pott, Philip Tebb, bass
[AAM] Rachel Brown, transverse flute; Alfredo Bernardini, oboe, oboe da caccia; Lars Henriksson, oboe, oboe d'amore; Ursula Leveaux, bassoon; Pavlo Beznosiuk, violin, viola d'amore; Rodolfo Richter, Iwona Muszynska, Bojan Cicic, Rebecca Livermore, William Thorp, violin; Jane Rogers, viola, viola d'amore; Joseph Crouch, cello; Reiko Ichese, viola da gamba; Timothy Amherst, violone; William Carter, lute; Richard Egarr, Jan Waterfield, harpsichord; Alastair Ross, organ

Although Bach's St John Passion is not performed and recorded as often as his St Matthew Passion the discography of Bach's oeuvre includes a considerable number of recordings. These are not always comparable, because this work has come down to us in various versions. The most frequently-performed is that of 1749. In recent years the first version of 1724 received some attention, and it was recorded by, for instance, Jos van Veldhoven, directing the Netherlands Bach Society.

Since Richard Egarr took the helm of the Academy of Ancient Music he has started to record the main works by Bach. So far recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Overtures have been released, and recently the St Matthew Passion came off the press. In 2013 he recorded the St John Passion which was released last year. He also decided to turn to the first version, but in two respects his performance is different from Van Veldhoven's. The first concerns the role of the transverse flute. It is omitted in Van Veldhoven's recording, based on research by the musicologist Pieter Dirksen. The parts which are usually played by the flute are allocated to the violin or the oboe. In his liner-notes Egarr argues at length why he believes that there are no reasons to omit the flute. Considering the fact that at the time of composing Bach didn't have flute players at his disposal Egarr suggests "that Bach had two treble wind players, both playing oboe, and one of whom doubled the flute as a special colour in the score." However, that left one problem to solve: the arioso 'Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt' requires two flutes and two oboe da caccia. "I simply redistributed the wind parts for one flute and one caccia: the fully-realised organ part provides the necessary complete harmonic picture."

The second issue is the line-up: Van Veldhoven followed the view of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part, in some cases extended by ripienists. In the booklet to this recording this subject is not mentioned, and I don't know whether Egarr's performance with a choir of 16 singers is a matter of principle or the result of a rather pragmatic approach.

When I started listening I suspected I was going to really hate this recording. It ominously opens with one of the worst performances of Herr, unser Herrscher that I have ever heard. The tempo is way too fast and makes the chorus giving the impression of being rushed. It proclaims the majesty and power of God but that is not conveyed at all. The fact that Egarr allows the singers to use vibrato doesn't make things any better. Overall the choral parts are the most disappointing. The turbae are mostly not dramatic and often lack bite. Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer gives the impression of being a nice little dance; the meanness of this question is not conveyed. Kreuzige, kreuzige! is too neat, and doesn't expose the fanaticism with which the people scream for Jesus to be crucified. Considering the fast tempo of the opening chorus it is rather odd that many turbae are too slow. The chorales are often a weak spot in recordings of Bach's Passions, and that isn't any different here. The articulation is generally quite good, but the tempi are too uniform, as if the content doesn't matter. The treatment of the fermates is stylistically implausible. The closing chorus Ruht wohl and the chorale Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein hardly make a lasting impression.

The solos leave a mixed impression. The part of the Evangelist is sung by James Gilchrist, and he is not bad at all. However, his performance is not as declamatory as it should be. The rhythm is far too strict; this part needs to be performed in a speechlike manner, according to the rhythm of the text. The Evangelist should be a story-teller, but Gilchrist is not. The other recitatives don't fare better. I am not impressed by Matthew Rose's account of the part of Jesus; he lacks authority, and I have to admit that I just don't like his voice. Ashley Riches is slightly better in the role of Pilate.

Sarah Connolly sings the alto arias with great intensity, and their content is very well communicated. She largely avoids the incessant and wide vibrato I have noticed in other recordings. I like her colouring in Von den Stricken and the way she emphasizes the word "Lasterbeulen". Es ist vollbracht is one of the best parts of this recording. Elizabeth Watts sings Ich folge dir gleichfalls very well, but is disappointing in Zerfließe, mein Herze which is largely spoilt by a wide vibrato. Andrew Kennedy is too bland in his solos. The emotional content of Ach, mein Sinn is seriously underexposed and Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken lacks intensity and colour; Kennedy uses too much vibrato as well. I am much more impressed by Christopher Purves who sings Betrachte meine Seel with great differentiation. Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen is one of the emotional key points in the St John Passion and Purves sings it with great commitment; the timing of the closing phrase, "und sprichst stillschweigend "Ja!"", is perfect.

He sings Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen also very well, but the orchestra is too bland. That is another serious flaw in this recording. The viole d'amore in the aria Erwäge are not very expressive, but expression is exactly the reason that Bach turned to this unusual scoring. The orchestral playing is too one-dimensional and lacks dynamic differentiation.

On balance this recording is not as bad as I expected when I started listening, but it has too many weaknesses to recommend it.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Sarah Connolly
James Gilchrist
Christopher Purves
Elizabeth Watts
Academy of Ancient Music

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