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

[I] "Johannes-Passion"
Sunhae Im, soprano; Benno Schachtner, alto; Werner Güra (Evangelist), Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; Johannes Weisser (Jesus), bass
RIAS Kammerchor; members of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: René Jacobs
rec: July 2015, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMC 802236.37 (2 CDs, DVD) (© 2016) (2.15'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Johannes-Passion BWV 245"
Veronika Winter, soprano; Franz Vitzthum, alto; Andreas Post (Evangelist), Stefan Weible, tenor; Lucian Eller, Thomas Laske, Christoph Schweizer (Jesus), baritone; Bernhard Spingler, bass
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben; Handel's Company
Dir: Rainer Johannes Homburg
rec: May 5 - 10, 2016, Stuttgart, Erlöserkirche
MDG - 902 1985-6 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.47'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F/I
Cover & track-list


If one wants to make a recording of the St John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, one has to decide which version to follow. There are four which date from 1724, 1725, around 1730 and 1749. The latter is almost identical with the first, whereas the version of around 1730 is a correction of the second. It is mostly the version of 1749 which is recorded. That is the case with the two recordings reviewed here as well, but René Jacobs also offers those parts from the 1725 version which are different from that of 1749. As there are many recordings in the catalogue it doesn't make sense to make a direct comparison between these two. They have one thing in common: both use a choir in the tutti sections; the difference is that Homburg employs a choir of boys and men, whereas Jacobs has a mixed choir at his disposal.

Let me start with Jacobs. In his liner-notes he expresses his views on this work. One of these is that he believes that Bach wanted to perform it with a choir. In his liner-notes he refers to the well-known Entwurff in which Bach laid down his wishes in regard to the number of singers available. Jacobs does ignore the different interpretations of this document. "His [Bach's] nightmare would have been having to perform a work like the St John Passion with only four singers! If he had known that some musicologists and musicians in the twentieth century were to trumpet this extreme stopgap measure as his ideal..." Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but is taking musicological research into consideration too much to ask? He should have argued at least why he thinks that his interpretation of the Entwurff is the historically correct one.

In one aspect he goes along with the results of musicological research: the soloists join the 16 singers of the RIAS Kammerchor in the tutti sections; he also refers to the choir as ripienists, acknowledging at least that there was no formal division between soli and tutti. The exception is the part of the Evangelist; Werner Güra does not participate in the tutti. Jacobs states that "[our] decision quite deliberately deviates from Bach's practice, because having to sing the tenor arias and all the choruses in addition to the Evangelist's part, in the context of a studio recording, would overexert the voice". Not that I care very much, but I would rather think that this is more of a problem in a live performance than in a studio recording. In the chorales the RIAS Kammerchor sings at full strength - between 32 and 36 singers - and is joined by a dozen trebles. They are employed as a 'church congregation'. However, there is not a single piece of evidence that in Bach's time the congregation was involved in the performance of the chorales. On the other hand, some passages in the turbae are sung by solo voices; I really can't see any reason for that and the score apparently doesn't indicate any differentiation in the line-up of these choruses. Musically it is unsatisfactory: because the soloists don't blend that well the solo episodes in the opening chorus and the complete B part of the closing chorus 'Ruht wohl' don't come off very well.

This is partly due to the vibrato of individual singers. None of them is really free of that, neither here nor in the recitatives and arias, but it is not always equally disturbing. Werner Güra does a good job in the role of the Evangelist; he tells the story in an involved manner, but without exaggeration. The text is always clearly understandable and he takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom; the tempo is mostly satisfying. Johannes Weisser is convincing in the role of Jesus, singing with the authority this role needs. I am less enthusiastic about his performances of the arias which are not particularly expressive. In what I think is the most moving aria in the St John Passion, 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen', he is a little superficial. I appreciated Sunhae Im's performances in Sigiswald Kuijken's recording of the Christmas Oratorio, but here she is too operatic. This undoubtedly is largely due to different views of the two conductors. Benno Schachtner is alright in 'Von den Stricken', but 'Es ist vollbracht' is too flat. Sebastian Kohlhepp probably makes the best impression, especially in the arias from the 1725 version.

The chorales are disappointing; they are too straightforward, with too little dynamic differentiation on the basis of contrasts in the text. I also wonder whether every single line should be followed by a caesura. It sounds very unnatural to my ears. A couple of other things I noted. The crescendo in the opening chorus is highly exaggerated, and - as so often in Jacobs' performances - I can't see any reason for such eccentricities. The same goes for the fact that the viola da gamba which has an obbligato part in the aria 'Es ist vollbracht', is already involved in the preceding recitative and chorale.

There can be little doubt about Jacobs' musicianship: he always defends his views with great persuasiveness. But I often don't agree with them nor his decisions in regard to aspects of performance practice and that is the case here as well. His view on the way this kind of music needs to be sung is one of them. Bach lovers certainly will like to add this recording to their collection as Jacobs is not just one voice in the crowd. But it certainly won't land in my list of favourite recordings.

The performance directed by Rainer Johannes Homburg is a more likely candidate, although it has some weaknesses as well. Here we hear only the version of 1749. It is a bit odd that the text - which has to be downloaded from the MDG site - includes two texts from the 1725 version. Instead of the tenor aria 'Ach, mein Sinn' it gives the text of 'Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen' and 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes' as the closing chorale, instead of 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein'.

The booklet doesn't indicate how many singers participate in the tutti sections but the pictures show that the choir is quite large. As is so often the case with choirs of boys and men, the former are far larger in number than the latter and that has a negative effect in that they tend to dominate. That is the case here as well. The size of the choir also explains why some choruses are a bit slower than would be ideal and sometimes lack the accents they need. That goes, for instance, for 'Kreuzige!' and 'Wir haben ein Gesetz'. However, overall the tutti receive quite good performances and that also goes for the chorales. Here the treatment of the fermatas are far more natural and have more logic than in Jacobs' performance; however, there is a bit too much legato singing here.

Most of the soloists - who do not participate in the tutti - are outstanding. Andreas Post is an excellent Evangelist, one of the best I have heard in recent years. He takes exactly the right tempo and rhythmic freedom and his delivery is impeccable. Like Güra he is a very engaged storyteller and he is partly responsible for some episodes being highly dramatic. That is also the merit of Homburg who keeps the whole ensemble going. Christoph Schweizer has a nice voice and sings the part of Jesus well, but he lacks authority and has too little presence. That is especially disappointing in the St John Passion which presents Jesus as the director of the proceedings, which is already indicated in the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher'.

The arias are very well sung. Veronika Winter delivers the best performances of the soprano arias I have heard. In the tenor arias Andreas Post once again shows his impressive skills; 'Erwäge' is brilliantly done. Franz Vitzthum sings 'Es ist vollbracht' beautifully, and Hille Perl plays the viola da gamba part nicely. The contrast between the A and B sections comes off very well. In 'Von den Stricken' the balance between the voice and the oboe is not ideal; the latter is too dominant. Thomas Laske gives good performances of the bass arias, but in 'Mein teurer Heiland' he doesn't fully explore the emotion of the text. Bernhard Spingler sings the part of Pilate, and that is a bit of a disappointment. In his attempt to sing dramatically he goes into overdrive and as a result his performance is often too pathetic and operatic.

The points of criticism I mentioned above are serious enough to prevent this disc from landing in the first catagory of recordings of the St John Passion. However, overall it is a pretty good account of this masterwork and I certainly will return to it. The fact that the upper parts are sung by boys - in line with Bach's performance practice - is a further good argument for this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Sunhae Im
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Thomas Laske
Andreas Post
Benno Schachtner
Christoph Schweizer
Franz Vitzthum
RIAS Kammerchor
Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Handel's Company

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