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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion BWV 243 (1723)
John Mark Ainsley tenor, Evangelist. Stephen Richardson, Christus, Catherine Bott soprano. Michael Chance, alto. Paul Agnew, tenor. Stephen Varcoe bass, Pilate.
King’s College Choir Cambridge
The Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury
No recording details given
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99050 [2CDs: 72.58+65.14]



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I have always vowed that I would not recommend a recording which had no texts, essays or covering notes, even if they were scant. They should, I have always felt, been included somehow. That is until I came across this CD set.

Because ‘Brilliant Classics’ are a real budget label they have decided not to cut back on the quality of the performers or the venue or on the recording itself … but on the documentation. I would not recommend any recording simply by saying ‘Well it’s only cheap. You might as well buy it’. However there is much to commend this set and it would be well worth seeking out even at three times the price.

As can be seen, the cast is a star-studded group of fine singers and instrumentalists who are very much a part of the early music business. Also it should be noted that the chorus from Kings College Cambridge is an all male choir and therefore has boys on the top part, a rarity amongst versions elsewhere. These boys are excellent as you would expect and their sound seems just right, especially in the chorales. Although I must admit that the ladies of the Scholars have such an unimpeachably pure tone that it is almost impossible to tell them apart from the boys.

There are many versions of the St. John Passion in the catalogue. In compiling this review I consulted two others. That by the Scholars Baroque Ensemble on another budget label, Naxos (8.550664) is, as I mentioned above, very fine. The version by John Eliot Gardiner recorded in 1986 (Archiv 419 324 1 / 2) also includes the wonderful Michael Chance as the counter-tenor. Both of these use female voices, and both are very fine performances.

Stephen Cleobury generally goes for faster tempi than these other two although the effect is greater than the metronome might indicate. It’s interesting that in putting the metronome on for the opening of Chorus I found that its crotchet=72 was only a touch faster than Gardiner at c. =69. The Scholars were faster, yet because Cleobury attacks the music with such passion and power it appears to be much faster and he never smoothes the edges. Gardiner’s soprano in ‘Zerfliete, mein Herze’, Nancy Argento is aiming at elegance and beauty of sound as is Neill Archer in the previous bass aria "Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt" (the one with the chorale against it). In this new version Paul Agnew and Catherine Bott, although far from harsh, sing with a cutting edge which suits the overall approach. Michael Chance’s lovely legato singing is even more impressive here than in his earlier version especially in ‘Von den Strikkenmeiner Sunder’ and is not at odds with the rest. And Paul Agnew again tackles ‘Ach mein Sinn’ at a great pace making it an exciting virtuoso aria. This brings out the anger of the text ‘Ah, my soul how futile is thy goal, where my contentment find thee’. John Mark Ainsley, well known in even earlier music, is a faultless Evangelist who throughout emphasises the dramatic. He is particularly at his best in the powerful recitative ‘Barabas aber war ein Morder’ with its startling triplet melismas and double dotted bass line.

For one piece the fast tempo back-fires rather, as in the Aria " Eilt, eilt ihr angefochtenen Seelen" where the otherwise excellent Stephen Varcoe cannot project so easily the lower register. It comes out a little gabbled, but perhaps the anonymous recording engineers might have helped a little more.

Incidentally this is a good opportunity to mention the excellence of the Brandenburg Consort. It’s just a pity that the recording recesses them sometimes, especially the upper strings. The woodwind playing is particularly special: clear and focused.

In addition to the Passion itself, Cleobury has also recorded what some editions (like the Barenreiter one I am using) call an ‘appendix’. Neither Gardiner nor the Scholars include these five extra numbers. In all likelihood the St. John Passion was first performed in Holy week 1724 in its first version divided in two by a sermon! It was sung again in 1725 and on that occasion five of the movements of the first version were replaced by new pieces, probably to accommodate the passion more readily into the year’s cantata cycle. In particular, the large chorale movement ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross" should be mentioned as it was subsequently used in the St. Matthew Passion as the conclusion of Part I. It seems that in later years Bach reverted to his original version. One especial gem of the appendix is the powerful and virtuoso aria "Himmel. Reise Welt erbebe" sung magnificently by Stephen Varcoe with the trebles gently adding the chorale above. This also includes an astonishingly difficult bass viol part. Sadly the player is anonymous.

I can only repeat what I wrote above, that if you like the modern approach to Bach on original instruments this will prove to be a very enjoyable and enriching recording. At its price it could act as a second version for your library to put alongside your tried and tested first preference.

Gary Higginson



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