> JS Bach - St John Passion [KM]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion BWV 245
Easter Oratorio BWV 249
Ascension Oratorio BWV 11
Mass in B minor BWV 232
Emma Kirkby, soprano
Evelyn Tubb, soprano
Emily Van Evera, soprano
Margaret Cable, alto
Panito Iconomou, alto
Caroline Trevor, alto
Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor
Charles Daniels, tenor
Wilfried Jochens, tenor
Stephen Charlesworth, bass
Peter Kooy, bass
David Thomas, bass
Solisten des Tölzer Knabenchors
Taverner Consort and Players/Andrew Parrott
CDs 1, 2: St John Passion
CD 3: Easter and Ascension Oratorios
CDs 4, 5: Mass in B minor
Rec: 1985, 1990, 1991, 1994. No locations specified.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5620682 [approx. 280 min.]

Andrew Parrott’s recordings of Bach’s sacred music are an acquired taste. His approach is at one extreme in the wide range of ways to interpret and record these works. Parrott is one of the leading proponents of the one-voice-per-part (OVPP) style, which states that Bach had no access to the kind of huge choirs we now often hear performing these works, and settled for one, or, at best, two singers for each of the parts in the choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). While many conductors and performers are totally against this approach, first posited in the 1980s by Jeremy Rifkin, Parrott has shown, in his recordings, that it is not only feasible, but that it can be musically satisfying, if listeners can only rid themselves of preconceptions and habits as to how they feel the music can be performed and heard.

It must be said that this approach is mainly apparent in the choral movements of these works. Take the opening Kyrie eleison of the B Minor Mass, for example. The lightness and ethereal quality of the music takes on a new dimension. Gone are the dense, heavy choirs of the more "classical" performances of Bach’s choral music. Here the choir is present in subtle strokes, and does not overwhelm the music. Of course, for one familiar with this music, hearing Parrott’s rendition for the first time, this can be a shock. But the beautiful texture that is apparent in this music - take the et in terra pax, for example, where one can hear the subtle interplay of the various parts - makes it all worthwhile. The listener can imagine being transported to a different world, when the music was meant to fill a church, and not a huge concert hall.

The intensity of the opening choral movement of the St John Passion, or of the penultimate movement of the same work, does not suffer greatly from the smaller forces. What is lost in quantity is gained in the magnificent texture. Since there is a fine balance between the smaller vocal forces and the instrumental forces, the works sound like "chamber" versions of what most listeners know as massive choral works.

It should be noted that while Parrott’s and Rifkin’s ideas have not been embraced widely among performers of Bach, they have greatly influenced current performance practice. Masaaki Suzuki’s recordings of Bach’s cantatas are not OVPP, yet the forces engaged remain very limited; and Paul McCreesh has been performing the St. Matthew Passion with very small forces (two small choirs, each of eight singers) and is to record the work in 2003.

Unlike Rifkin, whose OVPP recordings, made in the 1980s to show the viability of his theories, suffered from soloists of limited quality, Parrott has some of the finest singers possible for these works. To note just a few, Emma Kirkby and Evelyn Tubb are excellent in the Ascension Oratorio, bass Peter Kooy, who has recorded many of Bach’s cantatas with Masaaki Suzuki, stands out in the Easter Oratorio, and Rogers Covey-Crump is a brilliant evangelist in the St. John Passion. The singers’ voices seem to have been chosen to work together at a much different level than usual, and the combinations in all these works are very satisfying.

The recordings are quite good, though not outstanding; one cannot often hear the harpsichord, even in the smaller movements, but aside from that the recordings work well with the scale of the works. One adverse criticism for Virgin - the notes with this set are quite minimal, and give no context to Parrott’s performance practice. Listeners discovering this music without an understanding of why he chooses such small forces might be a bit taken aback. But Andrew Parrott recently wrote a book, The Essential Bach Choir, which gives a clear presentation of this approach and evidence to defend it.

While a bit unorthodox, Andrew Parrott is certainly one of the essential figures in recordings of Bach’s sacred music. This budget set is a must-have set for anyone curious to hear Bach in a different light, and contains some of the most interesting recordings available of these great works.

Kirk McElhearn

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