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Bach (JS): St John Passion (BWV 245) (version 1725)

Mark Padmore (Evangelist), tenor; Michael Volle (Jesus), bass; Sibylle Rubens (soprano), Andreas Scholl (alto), Sebastian Noack (bass)
Collegium Vocale Choir & Orchestra
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: April 2001, Cologne, Stolberger Saal
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901748.49 (2 CDs; 38'12"/72'39")

Cécile Kempenaers (Ancilla), soprano; Malcolm Bennett (Servus), tenor; Dominik Wörner (Petrus), bass

In recent years Philippe Herreweghe is recording some works by Bach he already recorded years ago. After the B-minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion he has recorded the St John Passion a second time. But this isn't just a remake: in his first recording he used the version of 1724 - most recorded and performed - whereas this time he decided to concentrate on the second version of 1725. There are a number of changes in comparison with the 1724 version. The opening chorus is "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß", which appeared in the St Matthew Passion later on, and the work ends with the chorus "Christe, du Lamm Gottes", which is now known as the chorus that closes Cantata 23. The two arias for the tenor of the 1724 version have been replaced by two others: "Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hügel" and "Ach, windet euch nicht so" and one aria for bass has been added: "Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe". There are some differences in the recitatives as well.

This is a very interesting version, which can't replace the one of 1724 - the tenor arias there are very moving and so are the choruses at the start and at the end, and in this version I miss the closing chorale "Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein" very much - but it is a good alternative to have.
As far as the performance is concerned I have some mixed feelings. Sibylle Rubens sings well, but in the second aria ("Zerfließe, mein Herze") her vibrato annoys me. Andreas Scholl is allright, but nothing more - as so often in his performances - he is a a little short on expression and real emotion. The surprise of this recording is Mark Padmore. His almost perfect German pronunciation as well as his excellent articulation and diction are remarkable. It makes him a great Evangelist. In the arias he is very convincing as well. Both basses are good, but I would have preferred more contrasting voices. Choir and orchestra are fine as always.

But there are two things that bother me. First of all, this recording fits to the "new" Herreweghe, compared with the "old" one. His earlier recordings were characterised by a very "speaking" style of performance, strictly based on baroque rhetorics, where the text was put in the centre and the articulation was basically non-legato. But over the years - perhaps under the influence of his performances of 19th century repertoire - the "sharp edges" have disappeared and the non-legato approach has been replaced by a smooth legato-style. That becomes very clear in this recording, in particular in the chorales.

The second problem is the lack of drama in this recording. The tempo of the recitatives - especially those of the Evangelist - is generally too slow, but recitatives also ask for more variation, both in tempo and dynamics. My overall impression of this recording is that it is short of drama and emotion. The engineers of Harmonia mundi have made things even worse by inserting too much silence between some tracks, which makes the recording almost sterile sometimes.

On the whole I am disappointed that the unmistakeable qualities of this recording are overshadowed by some serious shortcomings.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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