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Concert reviews

Bach (JS): St John Passion (BWV 245), reconstruction of the first version, 1724
Capella Figuralis/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Utrecht, March 19,2001

In March 2001 the Capella Figuralis - the soloists' ensemble of the Netherlands Bach Society - gave a series of performances of a reconstruction of the very first version of Bach's St John Passion.
There are four versions of this work, which make it impossible to define what the 'definitive' version is. We only know all the material of the versions of 1725 and 1749. In 1728 or 1732 Bach was working at a new version - the third - in which he removed some parts, but it isn't known what he used as replacement. The first version of 1724 is basically the same as that of 1749, although Bach made a number of changes. Those were ignored in the performance by the Capella Figuralis.
There are a number of differences in comparison with the versions which are usually performed and recorded. Some of the recitatives and arias are more simple. The main difference is the instrumentation. The reconstruction was made by the musicologist Pieter Dirksen, who has outlined the main characteristics of this version and the reasons behind it.
In this reconstruction there are no flutes. Dirksen believes that Bach originally didn't intend to use flutes and that they were only added at the last moment. In his first year as Kantor in Leipzig Bach didn't have flute players at his disposal and the cantatas from this period don't have them as well. They are dominated by the sound of the oboes, and when the SJP is performed without flutes, the oboes get a more prominent role, which is in line with Bach's cantatas from the early years in Leipzig.
Besides, the flutes don't play such an important role in the SJP in comparison with the SMP: they mainly play 'colla parte' with the oboes (opening chorus) or the violins (some of the 'turbae') or the choral tenor an octave higher. The arias in which the flutes are involved are both written in keys which make them difficult to play on the baroque flute. Bach usually composed his flute parts in D or G major, in contrast to "Ich folge dir" (in B flat major) and "Zerfliesse mein Herze" (in f minor).
Dirksen believes the first of the two is a 'violin aria': Bach would hardly compose a major vocal work without an aria with violin solo. The character of the instrumental solo part (p.e. the articulation) is very 'violinistic'. The upper instrumental part of "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" was meant to be played by the oboe. The key is much better playable on oboe than on the flute, and the range of the part is much more limited than necessary for the flute.

As far as the performance is concerned, it was a very small ensemble which sung and played this version: 8 singers (SATB), divided in two groups (right and left), with the Evangelist in the centre. Behind him the continuo instruments: cello, viola da gamba, double bass, lute, harpsichord and organ. On the right: 2 oboes, on the left: 2 violins (two of them also played the viole d'amore) and viola. In some choral movements only one of the groups was singing. For example in the opening chorus: Both sang the A section, the first lines of the B section ("Zeig uns durch deine Passion" - "Auch in der grössten Niedrigkeit") were sung by one of the groups, then the last line of the B section ("Verherrlicht worden bist") and the da capo of the A section were performed by both 'choirs'.
A performance of this kind has to have a special effect, quite different from the usual performances. But in the performance I attended this effect was a little undermined by the fact that the venue (the large auditorium of Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht) was too large for an ensemble of this size. What is needed is not too large a church with a very good acoustics. I am sure that under such circumstances a small ensemble can have the same dramatic effect as a larger one.
Some singers were reasonably satisfying, for instance the Evangelist Achim Kleinlein and the singer of the part of Jesus, Arnout Lems. The tenor Robert Morvai has a very nice voice, but was a little short in expression in the solos in Part 2. The aria "Es ist vollbracht" was very moving. Funny how everyone is talking about the famous altos of this world, like Andreas Scholl, and lesser famous singers are easily overlooked. The performance of this aria by Peter de Groot was as good - or even better - as any I have heard from his more illustrious colleagues. The sopranos Maria Rosenmöller and Irmela Brünger were both very good as well.

So, is this version convincing? In my opinion: definitely yes. I am totally convinced about the instrumentation without flutes. The solo part in "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" does sound very idiomatic on the violin. The scoring of "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" with oboe and oboe da caccia made a very strong impression as well. In my view this version can stand alongside the better known later versions.

Johan van Veen (© 2001)

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