musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

Werner Güra, tenor (Evangelist)
Gli Angeli Genève
Dir: Stephan MacLeod

rec: March 2022, Riehen, Landgasthof Riehen (Grosser Festsaal)
Claves - 50-3068/69 (© 2023) (2.14'42")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sophie Gallagher, Aleksandra Lewandowska, soprano; Christelle Monney, contralto; Alex Potter, alto; Olivier Coiffet, Maximilian Vogler, tenor; Drew Santini (Jesus), Stephan MacLeod, bass
Alexis Kossenko, Sara Boesch, transverse flute; Emmanuel Laporte, Claire Thomas, oboe; Leila Schayegh, Adrien Carré, Angelina Holzhofer, Xavier Sichel, Murielle Pfister, violin; Eva Saladin, Sonoko Asabuki, violin, viola d'amore; Deirdre Dowling, Bettina Ruchti, Martine Schnorhk, viola; Romina Lischka, viola da gamba; Hager Hanana, Oleguer Aymami, cello; Michaël Chanu, double bass; Carles Cristobal, bassoon; Matthias Spaeter, lute; François Guerrier, harpsichord; Francis Jacob, organ

The St Matthew Passion is by far the vocal composition by Johann Sebastian Bach which is most frequently performed and recorded. Whatever the differences of interpretation may be, performers all use the same version of this work, which is the 'definitive' version. The earliest version from 1727 is available in score, but seldom performed, and often considered not of the same quality. The situation is entirely 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 ten years later, and which is largely based on the first version of 1724. The booklet to the recording under review here offers an extensive and useful survey of the various versions. Most recordings usually mix various elements of the different versions available, and that seems the case here as well. The booklet does not specify which elements from the various versions have been included.

With his ensemble Gli Angeli Genève Stephan MacLeod covers a wide repertoire, going from the renaissance polyphony (Josquin) to the late 18th century, and both vocal and purely instrumental music. However, Bach's music takes a special place in the ensemble's repertoire. Previously it recorded cantatas as well as the St Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass. It can not come as a surprise that MacLeod turned his attention to the St John Passion. The concept of his performances is generally the same: two singers per part, who sing the tutti and also take care of the solos, and a relatively small instrumental ensemble; the latter is larger than two instruments per part as far as the strings are concerned. Here the parts of violin I, violin II and viola are played by three instruments each.

In this recording the Evangelist is not part of the ensemble: Werner Güra only sings this role, but does not participate in the tutti. He is a seasoned performer of this role, and he delivers a convincing account of it here. He is an engaged narrator, showing his emotion at some particularly dramatic or moving moments, and rightly so. However, there are some moments when he emphasizes words which are of no special importance, and there he does not take enough rhythmic freedom, and is his delivery not declamatory enough. The other main part is that of Jesus, sung by Drew Santini. He does not make a particularly good start; at first I found his voice a bit weak, especially at the lower end of his tessitura. That improves with time, but I am not really impressed by his account of this role. It is a little pale, and I don't like the slight vibrato in his voice.

The two soprano arias are divided between the two singers at this range in the ensemble. Sophie Gallagher gives a good performance of Ich folge dir gleichfalls; the rhythmic pulse comes off well, illustrating the "gladdening paces" with which the protagonist follows Jesus. The slight vibrato in her voice is disappointing, but not very disturbing. Aleksandra Lewandowska is excellent in the aria sung after Jesus' death, Zerfließe, mein Herze. It is a technically demanding piece, and she shows an impressive breath control; the emotional content comes off very well. Alex Potter is one of the great male altos of our time, certainly in the field of sacred music. Here he is again in superb form. Von den Stricken meiner Sünden is performed with strong commitment, and his performance of Es ist vollbracht is a wonder of text expression: the first part is sung with great subtlely and tenderness, the second with full power. I can't remember having heard Maximilian Vogler before; his performances of the tenor arias were a nice surprise. He has a very fine voice, and his precise articulation fits the nature of the arias perfectly. They arias are of great emotional depth; in Ach mein Sinn the protagonist is on the verge of desperation, and Vogler brings that out convincingly. Stephan MacLeod not only sings the bass arias, but also the various bass roles (Pilate, Judas, Peter). Although I have never been a great lover of his voice, he does so rather well, and the arias are also given good performances. My favourite is Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen, which has enough firmness at the key moment: the closing phrase where the meaning of Jesus' death is summed up.

The solos are a bit of a mixed baggage, as far as I am concerned. The same goes for the tutti sections. The opening chorus suffers from a problem of many recent performances: it is too fast. It certainly should not drag on, but its expressive weight is underexposed here. The dynamic differentiation between good and bad notes is insufficient. The turbae are generally rather good; the meanness of the people asking for Jesus' crucifixion is perfectly expressed. In the chorales the text is given good attention, but often I found the tempi too slow. The treatment of the fermates are a bit inconsistent; often they are either too long or too short, and the pauses between the phrases are unnatural. The closing chorale is a good example; otherwise it is sung very well, and has a maximum impact.

It is nice that MacLeod decided to add, as an appendix, the chorales and arias from the 1725 version. These are the chorale O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which Bach later used in his St Matthew Passion, the bass aria Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe (with chorale for soprano), the two tenor arias Zerschmettert mich and Ach, windet euch nicht so and lastly the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes. Both Vogler and MacLeod are impressive in their respective arias, and the ensemble's qualities are fully exposed in the two chorales; the blending of the voices is excellent, and thanks to the small number of singers the transparency is such that the text is always clearly understandable.

Lastly, a few technical issues. Because of the appendix the physical discs are not split between the two parts; the first disc includes the numbers 15 to 26 of the second part. That won't be a real problem, but it is not possible to create the version of 1725. That is the advantage of a digital download: the booklet includes a scheme which indicates where the pieces of 1725 were allocated; this allows for a reconstruction of the 1725 version by ordering the tracks. Another issue is the booklet, which includes the lyrics, but only a French translation. That should not be a real problem: those who purchase this recording may have another one in their collection, which comes with an English translation, and otherwise it is easy to find one on the internet.

To sum up: this performance has some substantial virtues, which I have signalled above. Moreover, the St John Passion is the most dramatic of the two extant Passions by Bach, and that is certainly exposed here. There are also some shortcomings, which are more than just peanuts. However, on balance I am happy to have heard this recording and add it to my collection. I certainly will return to it. This performance is not the ideal one, but certainly one that belongs among the higher echelon of what is in the catalogue, also due to its small line-up, which is still not very common.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Gli Angeli Genève

CD Reviews