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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St John Passion (BWV 245) (Version IV, 1749)

Cantus Cölln
Dir: Konrad Junghänel

rec: May 2011, Mandelsloh, St. Osdag
Accent - ACC 24251 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.49'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Amaryllis Dieltiens, Sabine Goetz (Ancilla), soprano; Elisabeth Popien, contralto; Alexander Schneider, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel (Evangelista), Georg Poplutz (Servus), tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Petrus, Pilatus), Markus Flaig (Jesus), bass
Michael Schmidt-Casdorff, Ingo Nelken, transverse flute; Katharina Spreckelsen, Henriette Boehm, oboe; Karin Gemeinhardt, bassoon; Ulla Bundies, Anne Harer, violin; Volker Hagedorn, viola; Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba; Maya Amrein, cello; Matthias Müller, double bass; Carsten Lohff, organ

The St Matthew Passion is far the vocal composition by Johann Sebastian Bach which is most frequently performed and recorded. Whatever the differences of interpretation may be, they all use the same version of this work, for the simple reason that there is just one. That is different in the case of the St John Passion. The development of this piece, the first passion which Bach wrote after his arrival in Leipzig, is very complicated, and there are still questions which can't be definitely answered. Today most performances are based upon a version which Bach started to write down in 1739, and was finished 10 years later, and which is largely based on the first version of 1724. They usually mix various elements of the different versions available. What we get here is the complete and unaltered version of 1749. "Alongside the alterations to the text and scoring, the attentive listener will also recognise the numerous detailed changes in the movements Nos. 2 to 10 which are here not performed in the version of the revised score of 1739 which is the most familiar in our time, but in their unrevised state", Peter Wollny writes in his liner-notes.

I don't know if this version of Bach's St John Passion has been recorded before, but I can't remember having heard it. I probably prefer the more common version, especially in regard to the text, but this one is definitely very interesting. The performers have made the most of it. One could even say that this is pretty much the ideal interpretation. Its main strength is the strong inner coherence. This is a collective undertaking, with all singers and players participating on equal terms. There is no weak link, no singer who is out of step with the overall approach. It shows that a performance with one voice and one instrument per part can be just as dramatic as a performance with larger forces.

Looking through the notes I made while listening I see many pluses and no minuses, with just some minor critical notes. Hans Jörg Mammel delivers an impressive account of the part of the Evangelist. He underlines dramatic moments but never exaggerates and concentrates on really telling the story. Only now and then the tempo could have been faster, and the performance even more speechlike. Markus Flaig is excellent in the part of Jesus, combining warmth and authority, with a perfect diction and delivery. Amaryllis Dieltiens has the ideal voice for baroque music as I already noticed recently. Her performance of 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' is the best I have heard since that of the late Marjanne Kweksilber in a live recording from the 1970s. Sabine Goetz is almost her equal in 'Zerfließe, mein Herze'. There could have been a bit more dynamic differentiation here. Elisabeth Popien sings 'Von den Stricken' rather well, but her voice is a bit dark and not very strong. As a result there are some moments when the balance with the instruments is not perfect. In 'Es ist vollbacht' the accompaniment is mostly confined to viola da gamba and bc, and because of that there is no balance problem here. This aria gets a beautiful reading, with Mieneke van der Velden playing the gamba part with great sensitivity.

Hans Jörg Mammel also sings the aria 'Ach, mein Sinn' which is performed at pretty high speed. That is defensible, but I would have preferred a slightly slower tempo. The aria 'Mein Jesu, ach!' is taken at a perfect speed, though, and Georg Poplutz delivers a very fine performance. Wolf Matthias Friedrich takes the bass roles of Peter and Pilate, and also sings the arias 'Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen' and 'Mein teurer Heiland'. For me the latter is one of the highlights of this Passion, and I am happy that Friedrich sings it so beautifully, with an impressive amount of text expression. Equally good is Markus Flaig in his only aria, 'Betrachte, meine Seel'.

The turbae are the most dramatic parts of Bach's Passions, and it is in particular here that one needs to get used to a performance with such small forces. But Cantus Cölln's efforts in exploring the full dramatic power of these turbae is highly impressive. 'Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen' is one of the best, with a perfect rendition of the rhythmic pulse. In many recordings of German sacred music the performance of the chorales are rather problematic. That is different here, as one would expect from an ensemble of German singers. They single out key words and give them the treatment they need - listen to 'Christus, der uns selig macht', the opening of Part II. The performance of the closing chorale, 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' is spot on. The choruses are also well sung. In the opening chorus I would have liked more dynamic accents in the long melisma on "Herrscher", but the content of this chorus, which really sets the tone for the whole piece, is communicated perfectly. Lastly, Peter Wollny mentions the fact that in the last performances of the St John Passion a harpsichord was involved. Then, one is inclined to ask, why is it absent in this recording?

Even in the case of an almost perfect performance there are some details about which one could argue. But these are really minor issues. I am very impressed by this recording, and independent from the version which is chosen this is the most satisfying interpretation of the St John's Passion I have heard in a long time. I am sure I will return to it regularly and I can only recommend it most strongly to every lover of Bach's music.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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