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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion BWV 245
Colin Baldy, bass
Matthew Beale, tenor
John Bernays, bass
James Bowman, counter-tenor
Eamonn Dougan, bass
James Gilchrist, tenor
Joe Littlewood, soprano
The Choir of New College Oxford
Collegium Novum/Edward Higginbottom, conductor
July, Sep 2001; June 2002, Lukaskirche, Stuttgart, Germany
NAXOS 8.557296-97 [110.17]


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This new recording of Bach's second great passion, after the monumental St. Matthew Passion, must be examined in the light of an important choice made by Edward Higginbottom: that of using all male voices as soloists and in the choir. While proponents of historically informed performances have long suggested such forces, few have actually used them. Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt used only male voices in their cantata series, but not in the passions that they have directed. The opening chorus here takes on a much different texture with a certain weakness in the mid-range; the bass and tenor voices are strong, the sopranos somewhat sharp, but the altos are lost in the crowd.

But what may sound unattractive at first listening may grow on the listener. I found repeated listenings, after I got used to this sound, to be much more satisfying than the first time I heard the recording. Higginbottom's choir has an attractive texture, even though it sounds weak at times. This is far from the resplendent choir in the excellent recording by the Bach Collegium Japan, led by Masaaki Suzuki, where every voice resounds. The Choir of New College Oxford sounds less like a "concert" choir and more like a "church" choir. The restrained forces (a maximum of 28 musicians) combine well with the voices in the larger movements. But when the choir needs to sound forceful it doesn't always come through strongly enough. The second number of this passion, which calls for the choir to sing forth with great emotion, sounds far too "light". But all in all, the choir is quite good, showing a good mastery of the subtle dynamics required for this work.

But the use of boy soloists is less successful. Soprano Joe Littlewood just doesn't do it. He is neither convincing nor proficient enough. This is no fault of his; I have nothing but respect for someone his age who can take on such a demanding role.

One surprise on this recording is the excellent performance of James Bowman, unfortunately for just two numbers: Von den Strikken meiner Sunden, in Part II, and Es is vollbracht in Part II. Bowman shows, even at this late stage of his career, what has made him one of England's finest countertenors. While he sounds a bit shaky in the first aria, he is riveting in the second. Also delivering vintage performances are James Gilchrist as the evangelist and John Bernays as Christ.

Musically, this recording is very good. The musicians are all splendid and the balance between them and the soloists is exemplary. The recording venue is partly responsible for this. But there are some weaknesses among the singers, enough to make this an overall unsatisfying recording. At the usual Naxos budget price this is worth having, for those collectors who want as many versions of this great work as possible. But it doesn't belong up there in the top versions of this passion.

Kirk McElhearn



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