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

[I] Sophie Bevan, soprano; Iestyn Davies, alto; James Gilchrist, Ed Lyon, tenor; Neal Davies, Benedict Kearns, Roderick Williams, bass
Choir of King's College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Stephen Cleobury

rec: March 21 - 22, 2016, Cambridge, chapel of King's College
Choir of King's College, Cambridge - KGS0018 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.49'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[II] Ditte Andersen, Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Delphine Galou, contralto; David Hansen, alto; Colin Balzer, Valerio Contaldo, Lothar Odinius, tenor; Christian Immler, Yorck Felix Speer, bass
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Dir: Marc Minkowski

rec: April 14 - 19 & April 15 (live), 2014, Lyon, Chapelle de la Trinité
Erato - 0190295854058 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.50'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[III] Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, Christian Immler, Jeffrey Strauss, baritone
Apollo's Singers; Apollo's Fire
Dir: Jeannette Sorrell

rec: March 7 - 9, 2016, Cleveland Heights, OH, St Paul's Church
AVIE - AV2369 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.47'42")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list


For a long time the St John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach was considered the little and less interesting brother of the St Matthew Passion. Although today the 'little brother' is much more 'popular' than it used to be, it is still overshadowed by what many music lovers consider the Passion of Bach, and that will probably never change. Therefore it is quite remarkable that 2017 saw the release of no fewer than four new recordings of this work. Last year I could only review one of them, a performance under the direction of Rainer Johannes Homburg. The other three arrived too late to be reviewed. They are the subject of the present review.

Every performer of the St John Passion has to make some basic decisions. The first concerns the version to be performed. There are four; they 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 three recordings reviewed here as well.

The second decision regards the number of performers to be involved, especially in the vocal parts. Since the early days of historical performance practice a small choir of 16 to 20 singers was considered the ideal. However, in the 1980s the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin suggested that Bach himself used to perform his sacred works with only a group of four soloists, in some cases with four additional ripienists. This performance practice, commonly known as 'one voice per part', has since been embraced by a number of interpreters, whereas other representatives of historical performance practice continue to perform the cantatas and oratorios with a small choir. However, some of them acknowledged that in Bach's time 'soloists' and 'choir' were not formally separated. In their performances the soloists are part of the choir and participate in the tutti. The three present recordings represent these different approaches.

As there are so many recordings in the catalogue to choose from, these three performances are no immediate competitors. Therefore I intend to judge every interpretation on its own merits. However, in some cases a comparison between them is almost inevitable.

Let me start with the performance directed by Stephen Cleobury. His choir is much larger than any vocal ensemble Bach may ever have seen. The Choir of King's College, Cambridge comprises 34 voices: 19 trebles, four male altos, four tenors and seven basses. However, in his use of trebles he comes closer to Bach's performance practice than Minkowski and Sorrell. That said, the style of singing of his choir does not really fit the requirements of Bach's music, or of any German baroque music, for that matter. It produces a sound which one could call 'Victorian'. It is based on smooth legato singing, which is much more appropriate for the music, which is the core of the repertoire of British cathedral choirs: renaissance polyphony and the music from the 19th century until the present day. Some British choirs have adopted a more 'continental' style of singing, and as a result their foreys into the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the music by German composers, are more convincing and stylistically 'correct' than what we get here. In this recording the turbae are particularly problematic. These are not rhythmically flexible enough and they lack 'bite'; as a result they are not as dramatic as they are meant to be. The problems already manifest themselves in the opening chorus: it is a bit too slow, and the realisation of the melismas on "Herrscher" suffers from the legato of the singers and the lack of dynamic accents on the 'good' notes. British tradition also shines through in the way the chorales are sung: in several cases two lines are connected through legato, whereas a short caesura is required. The overall treatment of the fermates is rather inconsistent.

In many British performances and recordings of Bach's Passions the role of the Evangelist is sung by James Gilchrist. There are good reasons for that: his German pronunciation is very good, and so are his diction and articulation. But his incessant vibrato is hard to swallow and historically untenable. Here his interpretation of the recitatives is not very speech-like; the tempo is often too slow. Especially the latter is obviously the responsibility of Stephen Cleobury. Another experienced Passion soloist is Neal Davies, here in the role of Jesus. His performance is largely disappointing as well. The main problem is not a matter of style, but rather his approach to this part. It requires composed authority and no outbursts of emotion or anger. Davies's performance is rather pathetic and sometimes over the top.

If the two key parts and the choral sections are unsatisfying, there is not that much left, that could save this recording. Fortunately there are some moments to savour. I have never been very fond of either Sophie Bevan or Iestyn Davies, but here they have pleasantly surprised me. The former sings 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' really well: articulation and pronunciation are flawless, and she uses a minimum of vibrato, unlike in other performances of hers that I have heard. In 'Zerfließe, mein Herze', she effectively uses the messa di voce on long notes. Iestyn Davies makes the best of 'Von den Stricken'. He hardly uses any vibrato, and that makes his performances so much better. His performance of 'Es ist vollbracht' is quite impressive. The four arias of these two are the highlights of this performance. I should also mention Roderick Williams, who gives a good account of the part of Pilate and sings the bass arias quite nicely, and that goes especially for 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen', one of the most emotional parts of this work. Ed Lyon sings the aria 'Erwäge' with much intensity, but the expression does not compensate for a surplus of vibrato.

Next Marc Minkowski. He already recorded Bach's Mass in b minor with one voice per part. In his recording of the St John Passion he follows the same principle. However, he does not strictly follow the 'rules'. Whereas Joshua Rifkin suggests that five voices suffice, Minkowski decided to use nine singers instead. The choral parts are sung by eight voices; they also take care of the solo parts. The exception is Lothar Odinius, who sings the part of the Evangelist, but does not participate in the tutti. If the tutti are performed by the soloists, it is of the utmost importance that their voices blend perfectly. If one of the singers uses some vibrato or produces too individual a sound, that is immediately noticeable. The booklet to his recording includes an interview, in which Minkowski explains some aspects of his approach. He refers to obstacles to a performance of this work and one of these is the choice of singers. "I wanted to avoid two pitfalls: the 'specialist', stylish but technically fragile and expressively inhibited, and the 'tourist', with a generous operatic voice but alien to so delicate a vocal style. (...) So we sought to gather together eight distinct voices that would form a genuine ensemble and could surmount without apparent effort the technical and expressive difficulties of the arias". I prefer to ignore here the nonsense about 'specialists'; it is beyond the scope of this review to contradict Minkowski's derogatory remarks. I have to say, though, that in the choruses his eight singers are not a genuine ensemble; in the opening chorus, but also the turbae the vibrato in some of the voices is clearly noticeable.

The arias reveal that Ditte Andersen and David Hansen are responsible for that. The latter's performance of 'Von den Stricken' is very disappointing. Not only is his incessant vibrato really annoying, his voice is also rather weak and colourless. His colleague Delphine Galou does much better in 'Es ist vollbracht'; she has a beautiful voice and she sings with much sensitivity, but also with firmness in the second section ("Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht"). Ditte Andersen's performance of 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' is spoiled by her vibrato; the tempo is good, reflecting the text (I, too, follow thee with joyful steps), but there is hardly any caesura between the B section and the dacapo, which creates a certain amount of nervousness. Lenneke Ruiten makes a much better impression in 'Zerfließe mein Herze', sung with impressive breath control.

The tenor arias are sung by Colin Balzer, who is stylistically convincing in 'Erwäge', but his performance is too restrained, and not very expressive. The two basses share the arias. 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' (Hasten, thou troubled souls) obviously needs a fast tempo, but here the speed is exaggerated. Yorck Felix Speer does sing it well, though. He is especially convincing in his interpretation of the role of Pilate. Christian Immler has found the right approach to the role of Jesus; his performance is much better than that of Neal Davies. He also delivers an expressive interpretation of 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen'. Lothar Odinius is a native German speaker, and therefore one may expect a perfect pronunciation of German. He does well in the part of the Evangelist, showing true engagement, when it is needed. However, there are also moments, when I find his performance a bit flat. In general he takes enough rhythmic freedom, but in the recitatives at the end of the Passion he is too strict in time. Unfortunately I don't find his voice very pleasant to listen to, also because of too much vibrato.

Minkowski also included two arias from the 1725 version; this is rather arbitrary, as there are more differences between the various versions than these two arias. One of them, 'Zerschmettert mich', is sung by Valerio Contaldo; his performance is outstanding, and I would like to hear more from him. I wonder if he would make a good Evangelist.

I have already mentioned that the vibrato of two singers damages the turbae and the opening chorus. Oddly enough in the chorales the vibrato is hardly noticeable. However, the way they are sung is rather disappointing. There is no text expression whatsoever, nor are there any dynamic accents. They are sung in a straightforward and - in my opinion - uninvolved manner, as if they are moments of relaxation. That seems a mistake to me; the chorales are very much part of the drama. I noticed too fast a tempo in an aria; the same goes for some of the turbae and certainly also the opening chorus. In the latter there is also too much legato singing and playing, and the basso continuo has too much presence, creating a kind of 'drone'. In the closing chorale, 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein', Minkowski creates a kind of climax by gradually adding instruments to the vocal ensemble. Bach doesn't indicate anything of this kind, and as the music has a climax in itself, there is no need to further emphasize that.

On the basis of my experiences with previous recordings by Jeannette Sorrell I did not really know what to expect. I was not impressed by her recording of vocal works by Handel and had mixed feelings about her recording of his Messiah. But Michael Praetorius's 'Christmas Vespers' was quite good, and I am happy to say that this recording of the St John Passion is of about the same level. The choir (23 voices: 7/6/5,5, including the soloists, except the Evangelist) is too large, but does a very good job. It shows what it is made of in the opening chorus, which is by far the best of these three recordings. The tempo is just right, there are pronounced dynamic accents in the vocal as well as the instrumental parts. This is how this chorus should be sung and played. Considering that the chorales are often very problematic in performances of ensembles from the Anglosaxon world, I was surprised how well they are sung here. The fermates are mostly right, and Sorrell pays much attention to the text. She makes a clear difference between good and bad notes. The turbae should be ranked among the most impressive parts of this performance. The tempi are almost always right, the choir's articulation and accentuation are pretty much ideal, and as a result they are very dramatic. The turmoil among the crowds is perfectly expressed here.

Nicholas Phan is an excellent interpreter of the part of the Evangelist. He has a very nice voice, which is perfectly suited to this kind of repertoire, and he sings in truly speechlike fashion. He is an engaging, often even emotional storyteller. However, I feel that he sometimes goes too far. Some parts of the narrative don't need special treatment; if the Evangelist reports that one of the characters says something, that doesn't need to be emphasized. I would have liked a little more differentiation. That said, I prefer his engagement to any uninvolved performance, and all in all I really appreciated his account of the Evangelist part. The part of Jesus is sung by Jesse Blumberg; his voice is probably a bit too light-weight, but there is nothing wrong with his interpretation, also as he avoids the overly dramatic approach of Neal Davies. I am a little less enthusiastic about Jeffrey Strauss in the role of Pilate. That has not so much to do with the interpretationas such, but more his style of singing.

The two tenor arias are sung by Nicholas Phan. He sings 'Erwäge' very nicely, but the diction is less than perfect; in particular the first syllables in phrases are sometimes hardly intelligible (erwäge). Like in Minkowski's performance we meet Christian Immler; here he only sings arias. 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' has exactly the right tempo, without Minkowski's exaggeration. 'Mein teurer Heiland' is beautifully sung; the balance between the soloist and the choir is just right. Like in Cleobury's recording the soprano and alto arias are given fine performances. Amanda Forsythe surprised me in a positive way, as did Sophie Bevan. There is none of the incessant vibrato, which mars some of her recordings I have heard before. Both tempo and dynamic accents in 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' fit this aria's content, and 'Zerfließe, mein Herze' is given an emotional interpretation. Terry Wey does well in the two alto arias; his voice is a little lighter than Iestyn Davies's, but in his own way his performances are no less expressive. However, I don't see the need of the ornament at the end of 'Von den Stricken', in which the last note is an octave above the written pitch.

This recording has also some shortcomings. The second stanza of the chorale 'Wer hat dich so geschlagen' is sung a cappella, and so is 'Er nahm alles wohl in acht' in the second part. I don't see any justification for that practice. Moreover, an interpreter should not derive from the score. Unfortunately the same is practised in the closing chorale. The first half is sung a cappella, then some instruments enter, and in the last lines the full ensemble is involved. As I wrote in the case of Minkowski's performance, there is no need for such eccentricities.

One general observation needs to be made. I noted a rather inconsistent treatment of the issue of appoggiaturas. Sometimes they are observed, in other cases the soloists sing the notes as they are written. This is a general problem in performances of 18th-century vocal music, and I would wish performers to take a more historical approach to this issue, and be consistent in its application.

These three recordings are no immediate competitors, as I stated above. However, having listened to them back to back I have come to the conclusion that only Jeannette Sorrell's performance is a really meaningful addition to the discography of Bach's St John Passion. The other two have their merits, but their considerable weaknesses makes it impossible to recommend them.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Jesse Blumberg
Iestyn Davies
Amanda Forsythe
Delphine Galou
James Gilchrist
David Hansen
Christian Immler
Lothar Odinius
Nicholas Phan
Lenneke Ruiten
Yorck Felix Speer
Terry Wey
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music
Apollo's Fire
Les Musiciens du Louvre

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