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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion BWV 245 (1724-5)
James Gilchrist, Evangelist; John Bernays, Christ; Eamonn Dougan, Pilate; Joe Littlewood, soprano; James Bowman, countertenor; Matthew Beale, Tenor and Colin Baldy, bass.
The Choir of New College, Oxford
Collegium Novum/Edward Higginbottom
Recorded in New College Oxford July/ September 2001
NAXOS 8.557296-97 [2CDs: 35.25+74.52]

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Only the other day I was writing for this web site a review of this great work in which I said, that in all the many recordings available there were very few recorded by males voices (with boys on the top line) and also with period instruments. I was writing this in the context of the recording by Kings College Choir and the Brandenburg Consort under Stephen Cleobury (Brilliant Classics 99050) a budget price disc. Well, here we have another budget label offering a new St. John with an all-male cast and with period instruments.

Kings College drew on the services of the experienced Catherine Bott as a soprano soloist. Here New College use a boy treble (though listed as a boy soprano), the excellent Joe Littlewood, to sing two solo numbers, ‘Ich folge dir gleicfalls’ in Part 1 and ‘Zerfliebse, mein herze’ in Part 2. This really is an all-male show.

The aforementioned ‘Brilliant Classics’ double album which runs for well over two hours also includes the appendix, some items added by Bach in later years. This Naxos recording offers us the ‘normal’ version and is therefore much shorter overall. The cast is less star-studded than the Kings version but that does not matter in the least; in fact Higginbottom has assembled a team of past and present New College Choristers who are now attempting to make it in the profession. The booklet gives us photos and biographies. John Bernays was in the choir in the late 1980s, Eamonn Dougan in the mid-nineties. This is a fine team of soloists and it is especially wonderful to hear a New College chorister from the 1960s, the wonderful James Bowman, on such fine form. It seems many years ago now, probably in the days of David Munrow, when his tone collapsed into an overworked hoot. Now in his fifties he is singing better than ever.

In case you have your doubts that the chaste sounds of unbroken English boys voices are really suitably powerful or able to convey the emotional quality of the music, its worthwhile remembering that New College under Higginbottom has, for at least twenty years, been recording not only Byrd and Purcell but also a great deal of Continental baroque music. They have concentrated especially on the French repertoire. Accoridngly they have cultivated a more ‘foreign’ sound than one might normally find in Oxford, if not Cambridge. This sound is rather front of the mouth, with a controlled if sometimes rather forced vibrato. Higginbottom also favours rather clipped vowels and particular firm placement of the consonant at the end of words. Whilst all choral directors try to achieve this it does not always work. For instance it can be irritating in the extreme in the many fugal choral/crowd scenes to hear hissing ‘esses’ at every moment. In chorus number 21, ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ the crotchet on ‘setz’ is clipped to half of its length to place the consonant on the second half of the beat. The effect is that the ‘tz’ is over-emphasized and due to the shortness of the note the quaver rest becomes extended. There is a battering of ‘tzes’ from all corners. The acoustic of the chapel is excellent of course but these consonants bounce strongly off the walls especially in the crowd numbers. In fact you may have to get used to the acoustic which might appear a little muddy. Later on it seems less of a problem and I suspect that one’s ears soon adjust.

Whereas the St. Matthew Passion is, in its three hours, more of a meditation on the Passion of Christ, the St.John Passion, in its succinctness, is more dramatic. The booklet notes by Jeremy Siepmann remark that the work is "almost unbearable in its intensity and vividness … and far exceeds much baroque opera in its dramatic scope and theatrical flair". Quite a statement, but the work is said in many a textbook to be the opera that Bach never wrote. New College Choir do not totally capture the ‘theatrical fire’, but to be honest it’s not entirely necessary. What matters is to create a version that the listener will be happy to replay without finding anything which jars or annoys too much.

I can recommend this version if you want period instruments, which I must say are wonderfully and sensitively played. This kind of Bach performance is ‘de rigueur’ nowadays and I will be happy to play and use this recording with alacrity.

Gary Higginson



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