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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): St John Passion (BWV 245)

[I] Elisabeth Watts, soprano; Benno Schachtner, alto; Patrick Grahl, tenor; Peter Harvey (Jesus), Matthias Winckhler, bass
Gaechinger Cantorey
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec: August 3 - 4, 2019, Ansbach, Kirche St. Gumbertus
Carus - 83.313 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.48'03")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[II] Dorothee Mields, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Maximilian Schmitt (Evangelist), Robin Tritschler, tenor; Peter Kooij, Krešimir Stražanac (Jesus), bass
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: March 20 - 23, 2018, Antwerp, deSingel
PHI - LPH 031 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.47'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

[III] Benedikt Kristjánsson (Evangelist), tenor; Felix Schwandtke (Jesus), bass
Ælbgut; Wunderkammer
rec: Oct 15 - 19 & Nov 25 - 26, 2018, Berlin, Andreaskirche
Coviello Classics - COV 92007 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.47'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Isabel Schicketanz, soprano; Stefan Kunath, alto; Tobias Mäthger, Florian Sievers, tenor; Martin Schicketanz, bass
Johanna Bartz, Ulrike Ködding, transverse flute; Markus Müller, Luise Haugk, oboe; Andreas Pfaff, Tristan Braun, violin; Christian Rothe, viola; Martin Seemann, cello; Niklas Trüstedt, viola da gamba, violone; Mira Lange, harpsichord; Peter Uehling, organ

[IV] Hana Blažíková, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Zachary Wilder, tenor; Christian Immler, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: March 14 - 17, 2020, Cologne, Philharmonie
BIS - 2551 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.45'28")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet


In comparison to the St Matthew Passion, its 'little' sister is rather problematic. Four different versions of this work are known, but not one of them has come down to us in manuscript. Several attempts have been made to reconstruct the first version of 1724 (for instance by Pieter Dirksen), but these seem not to have established themselves. The only versions which can be performed more or less complete, are the second of 1725 and the fourth of 1749. Both differ in text and music partially from the 'mixed version' that is mostly performed these days. The latter is based on the Neue Bachausgabe, but basically this is a version that Bach himself has never performed. In recent years, three new recordings have been released, and last year the Bach Collegium Japan added a fourth. They use different versions of this Passion.

Hans-Christoph Rademann [I] recorded the version of 1749. In this version several changes to the first version which Bach carried out in 1725, were reversed. The opening chorus and the closing chorale are identical with the first concept. At the same time this version includes various new adaptations, musically, but especially in the lyrics. The text of 'Erwäge' has been completely replaced and opens here with the words "Mein Jesu, ach!" In the lyrics of the aria 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' and the arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' several lines have been eradicated and replaced by a new text. The version of 1749 is not that well-known, although it has been recorded previously (for instance by Hermann Max; Capriccio, 1990). That makes this recording a substantial contribution to the discography, independent of its musical merits. Fortunately, the latter are considerable. I had not heard Patrick Grahl before in the part of the Evangelist in one of Bach's Passions, and I am happy to say that he gives a pretty good account of this part. He is a real storyteller; only now and then his performance could be a bit more dramatic and could he have taken a little more rhythmic freedom. He also sings the arias and does so rather well, although in 'Mein Jesu, ach!' he seems to get out of breath. Peter Harvey is certainly not one of my favourite singers, but his performance of the part of Jesus is really good. Benno Schachtner is excellent in 'Es ist vollbracht': the contrast between the two sections comes off to the full, and the end is full of emotion. Matthias Winckhler is convincing in the role of Pilate, and also makes the most of the arias. 'Mein teurer Heiland' is sung very beautifully, but I find the tempo a little too fast. Elzabeth Watts is a bit of a mystery to me. 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' is simply perfect; here she strikes the right chords. In contrast, 'Zerfließe, mein Herze' is spoilt by an incessant and pretty wide vibrato. I just don't get the reasons for this difference. The turbae are full of dramatic power; most of the tempi are exactly right. I also note with satisfasction that the performance of the chorales are clearly inspired by the text. 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' is the emotional end of a recording which has some weaknesses, but overall can be counted among the best that are on the market.

I should not forget to give the details about the line-up. The choir consists of 25 singers, some of whom take care of the smaller roles. The soloists don't participate in the tutti. The instrumental ensemble comprises nine violins and three violas. Part of it is a bassono grosso, an instrument Bach uses for the first time here.

Philippe Herreweghe [II] recorded the St John Passion for the third time. For his second recording (Harmonia mundi, 2001) he selected the version of 1725, but for his latest recording he has returned to the mixed version. The line-up is in accordance to what has become more or less the standard since the early days of historical performance practice: a choir of sixteen singers and a relatively small instrumental ensemble, including six violins and two violas. In contrast to the practice in those days, the soloists participate in the tutti; the exceptions are Maximilian Schmitt, who takes the role of the Evangelist, and Kresimir Strazanac, who sings the role of Jesus. As always in Herreweghe's performances, the choruses and chorales are perfectly realised. His Collegium Vocale is hard to beat with regard to text intelligibility and expression, whether in the turbae or in the chorales. The tempi always make sense, and thanks to a clear differentiation between good and bad notes, the rhythmic pulse comes off to perfection. Unfortunately, the contributions of some soloists bring down this performance. Maximilian Schmitt is disappointing, as he does not act as a real storyteller; he too often sticks to the musical rhythm rather than the rhythm of the text. His incessant vibrato is annoying, the top notes are not free of stress and now and then he is too loud at the wrong moments. Kresimir Strazanac's account of the part of Jesus lacks differentiation as well as authority and warmth; I find his singing mostly rather cold and uninvolved. Dorothee Mields delivers a nice performance of 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls', but in 'Zerfliesse mein Herze' her voice starts to flutter. She is also too loud (like Elizabeth Watts in Rademann's recording); this aria requires more intimacy and restraint. Damien Guillon does well in 'Es ist vollbracht', but 'Von den Stricken' is disappointing, also due to his vibrato. Robin Tritschler's contributions also suffer from that, but his singing also not very idiomatic, probably because German is not his native language. In 'Erwäge' does not receive something one may call 'interpretation', as it is rather superficial. Peter Kooij is an old hand in the field of early music, but he still goes strong. With him the role of Pilate is in the best hands. 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' is quite dramatic, also thanks to the marked choral interventions, and 'Mein teurer Heiland' is very moving; the tempo in this aria is a little slower than in Rademann's performance, and that has a positive effect on its expression. Despite the positive features I have noted, overall I am rather disappointed about this recording. I find the choice of some of the soloists hard to understand, given what we come to expect from Herreweghe.

The vocal ensemble Ælbgut and the instrumental ensemble Wunderkammer [III] opted for the version of 1725. This is better known than the 1749 version, but even so, the number of recordings of this version is rather limited. Another notable aspect of this performance is that it is 'one to a part': the tutti are sung by the soloists. In some pieces the four main soloists are joined by the tenor Tobias Mäthger, which is a little surprising, as he comes in when the bass has a solo to sing. One would expect an additional bass; apparently Mäthger sings the bass part in the tutti. However, the very fact that in two arias - 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' and 'Mein teurer Heiland' - the bass has a solo and the choir is in four parts, indicates that the St John Passion requires the addition of ripienists. From that perspective the historical foundation of this recording is debatable. The instrumental ensemble also plays with one instrument per part: the string parts are performed by two violins and one viola. This lends this performance a strongly intimate character. However, the performers have gone a little too far in that the acoustic is rather dry, which is rather surprising, as the recording was made in a church. I had expected a little more reverberation, and that would have had a positive effect on the overall result. Even so, this performance has made a very good impression, and I probably would have marked it as the best of its kind - a one-to-a-part performance of this particular version - if the part of the Evangelist had received a better performance. I have heard Benedikt Kristjánsson several times, and every time I was impressed by his qualities, both with regard to his voice as such and the way he uses it, as well as his interpretations. Therefore I had high hopes of his account of the part of the Evangelist in this recording. And there is nothing wrong with his singing and the interpretation of the text; in that respect he fully met my expectations. However, there are two problems. First, the tempo is generally far too slow, sometimes at the brink of exaggeration; no wonder he can't sing the word "bitterlich" (about Peter's weeping) in the same breath. Second, he slavishly follows the musical rhythm; there is nothing like a natural speech rhythm here. I assume that this is the result of a decision on the side of the performers, but I am convinced they miss the point here. That is all the more regrettable as otherwise nearly everything is done with near perfection. Isabel Schicketanz is excellent in her arias; in 'Zerfliesse, mein Herze' her performance is better than in the previous two recordings. Stefan Kunath delivers an incisive interpretation of 'Es ist vollbracht'. Martin Schicketanz's performance of 'Mein teurer Heiland' is spot-on. In 'Zerschmettert mich' Florian Sievers perfectly expresses the protagonist's desperation; his voice has the sharp edges that this aria requires. Felix Schwandte is responsible for a nicely differentiated interpretation of the part of Jesus. The turbae have exactly the right bite, and in the other choruses and in the chorales, the text is always in the centre of attention.

Last year, Masaaki Suzuki [IV] recorded the St John Passion for the third time. As one can see in the header, the recording was not made in Japan, as all other recordings of the Bach Collegium Japan were, but in Cologne, which is the direct effect of the COVID pandemic. Suzuki tells the remarkable story of the recording process in the booklet; the Gramophone, among others, also wrote about it. The line-up maybe a little surprising, especially the participation of James Gilchrist in the role of the Evangelist, as he mostly sings this role in British performances. Whether the line-up would have been any different, if - what may have been the plan - a studio recording had been made at a later date, is anybody's guess.
Gilchrist's's participation was one of the features of this recording which made me rather sceptical about it, as I have neve been impressed by his credentials in baroque repertoire. However, I am positively surprised by the way he acts as Evangelist. He uses a little too much vibrato now and then, but he pretty much reduces it, in comparison, for instance, with his performance of this part in Stephen Cleobury's recording of the St Matthew Passion. Sometimes he takes too little rhythmic freedom, but overall he is a rather good storyteller, who keeps the listener on his toes. Christian Immler does give an engaged account of the part of Jesus, but I find his voice not very attractive, and his vibrato disappointing. However, it is especially in the arias that I would have liked a different voice. 'Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen' just misses its magic. The star of the cast, as far as the solos are concerned, is Hana Blažíková, who does wonders in her two arias. The tempo and accentuation in 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' perfectly illustrates the text, and in 'Zerfließe, meine Herze', the last line of the B-part, "Your Jesus has died", is quite dramatic. Damien Guillon, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing, as he uses quite some vibrato, more than I expected from him. There is no lack of expression in his arias, and 'Es ist vollbracht' is especially good, but less vibrato would have made them so much better. 'Von den Stricken' is a bit too fast. Zachary Wilder does sing well, but is a bit bland. 'Ach, mein Sinn' has too little weight. 'Mein Jesu, ach!' is a little better. This aria is part of the 1749 version. And that brings me to one of the things where this recording differs from the others. It is basically a recording of the fourth version of 1749, but for the first ten sections, Suzuki turned to the third version of 1739, whose manuscript breaks off halfway the eleventh section. What we have here is another 'mixed version', but then one of a slightly different kind.
I already mentioned the tempo in some arias. Overall, Suzuki prefers quite fast tempi. That is the case, for instance, in the opening chorus. I find the tempo here rather unsatisfying. The articulation and accentuation on "Herrscher" are not marked enough, and as a result it works rather rushed. In the aria 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen', the rather speedy tempo is spot-on. Overall, this performance is quite dramatic. Sometimes the Evangelist has hardly finished when the choir intervenes, or the other way round. This results is a highly dramatic flow, which is in line with the character of this Passion. The chorales are generally sung quite well, but sometimes I would have liked them a little slower, and preferred a different way of treating the fermates and the dynamic accents.
This is not going to be my favourite recording of the St John Passion, but there is enough to rank it among the better performances in the catalogue. Its dramatic character and the contributions of Hana Blaziková are among its strengths. One of the nice features of Suzuki's latest recording of the St Matthew Passion, the use of a large organ for the basso continuo, obviously is absent here. That is the price he had to pay for the opportunity to record the St John Passion under such unusual and dramatic circumstances, and that at the 30th anniversary of his Bach Collegium Japan. It was a birthday he, his colleagues and the many admirers of his ensemble certainly won't forget.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Hana Blažíková
James Gilchrist
Patrick Grahl
Peter Harvey
Christian Immler
Peter Kooij
Benedikt Kristjánsson
Benno Schachtner
Felix Schwandtke
Krešimir Stražanac
Elizabeth Watts
Zachary Wilder
Matthias Winckhler
Bach Collegium Japan
Collegium Vocale Gent
Gaechinger Cantorey

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