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Bach (JS): St John Passion (BWV 245)

Marcel Beekman (Evangelist), tenor; Robbert Muuse (Jesus), bass; Marjon Strijk (soprano), Sytse Buwalda (alto), Martinus Leusink (tenor), Bas Ramselaar (bass)
Holland Boys Choir, Netherlands Bach Collegium
Dir: Pieter Jan Leusink
rec: Jan. 2001, Elburg (Neth), Grote Kerk
Brilliant Classics - 99795 (2 CDs; 51'15"/54'32")

The Holland Boys Choir has been involved in a major project: the recording of all sacred cantatas by Bach as part of the Bach-Edition of Brilliant Classics. From an artistic point of view, this wasn't a great success. But this project - and in particular the fact that all recordings had to be made within one year - has taken its toll from this choir. It used to be quite a good choir, in particular when it had its original name, "Stadsknapenkoor Elburg", referring to the city where it is based. The sound of the choir was full and strong in all sections. Although its singing technique is based on the British cathedral tradition, which makes it less suitable for interpreting German baroque music, its first recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion wasn't bad at all. That was 1992. In comparison this recording of the St John Passion from almost ten years later comes as a shock.

Well, not quite. Those who know the latest volumes in the cantata series saw it coming. Even then the quality of the choir had seriously deteriorated. Therefore, listening to this recording I wasn't totally surprised, but still amazed by the apalling quality of the choir right now. I simply don't understand how anyone can be satisfied with this performance.
The choir is completely out of balance: the trebles are far too dominating, and they seem not to be able to do anything else than shout. They push the sounds out of their mouths, and can't sing the words properly. The male altos produce a consistent pretty heavy vibrato, the singing of the tenors and basses is rude and unpolished. And if that is not bad enough: there is no ensemble singing here: the characteristics of the sections within the choir are so different that this is more like singing apart together. Need I add that the German pronunciation is quite awful sometimes ("Ruht woll", for instance)?

The soloists can't save the performance. Not only because the role of the choir in this work is too important, but also because they don't have enough qualities of their own. Most of the time the singing of the soloists seems uninvolved, even boring. Marcel Beekman has a nice voice, but completely fails to tell the story. He just sings the notes, precisely as they are written. No variation in rhythm, following the rhythm of the text, nor any dynamic accents. The same is true for Robbert Muuse, who doesn't have the right voice for the part of Jesus, and who completely lacks the necessary authority. Marjon Strijk seems not to know what she is singing about, and at the end of the aria "Zerfließe, mein Herze" she produces a serious error, which hasn't been corrected - unacceptable. The tenor arias go by almost unnoticed, being sung with a total lack of expression. Sytse Buwalda is one of the two, who give a convincing performance, although "Von den Stricken" is a little disappointing - but "Es ist vollbracht" is quite good. Bas Ramselaar is coming out on top with some moving contributions, in particular in the aria "Mein teurer Heiland". There the choir needs to sing quietly, therefore it can't destroy the whole thing. Buwalda and Ramselaar are also the only singers who produce idiomatic German, the others sound like schoolboys, whom the teacher just told how to pronounce German correctly.

There isn't a lot to say about the orchestra - playing on period instruments - , apart from the fact that, the qualities of the individual players notwithstanding, it is uninteresting and colourless.

This is one of the worst recordings of Bach's St John Passion I have ever heard. It is sad that the wish of the conductor to put his choir on the map has driven him to destroy its once impressive qualities.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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