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Brilliant Classics

Brilliant Bach Edition Volume 10 – Passions
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)

St. Matthew Passion (1)
St. John Passion (2)
St. Mark Passion (in reconstruction by Dr. Simon Heighes) (3)
St. Luke Passion (4)
Emma Kirkby (soprano) (1)
Catherine Bott (soprano) (2)
Charlotte Lehmann (soprano) (4)
Gudrun Schmid (soprano) (4)
Connor Burrowes (treble) (3)
Michael Chance (alto) (1,2)
David James (alto) (3)
Elisabeth Künstler (alto) (4)
Martyn Hill (tenor) (1)
Paul Agnew (tenor) (2, 3)
Graeme Nicholson (tenor) (4)
David Thomas (bass) (1)
Stephen Varcoe (bass) (2)
Teppo Tolonen (baritone) (3)
Wolfgang Herlitz (bass) (4)
Evangelist – Rogers Covey Crump (tenor) (1, 3)
Evangelist – John Mark Ainsley (tenor) (2)
Evangelist – Georg Jelden (tenor) (4)
Jesus – Michael George (bass) (1)
Jesus - Stephen Richardson (bass) (2)
Jesus – Teppo Tolonen (baritone) (3)
Jesus – Ulrich Schaible (bass) (4)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (1,2)
Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge (choir in ripieno) (1)
The Ring Ensemble of Finland (3)
Balinger Kantorei (4)
The Brandenburg Consort (leader, Roy Goodman) (1, 2)
European Union Baroque Orchestra (3)
Kammerorchester Collegium Musicum Tübingen (4)
Stephen Cleobury (conductor) (1,2)
Roy Goodman (conductor) (3)
Gerhard Rehm (conductor) (4)
Recorded: 1994, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (1)
18-21 March 1996, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (2)
25-30 March 1996, Chapel of New College, University of Oxford (3)
(4) Licensed from Bayer Records
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99369 [9 CDs: 67.14 + 40.52 + 52.56 + 72.58 + 65.14 + 53.50 + 47.11 + 58.26 + 59.18]


When the Bach Passions were re-discovered in the 19th century, performances were shoe-horned into the then current oratorio tradition stemming from large-scale Handel performances. That this type of performance can be made to work is a tribute to Bach’s genius and the scale on which he chose to explore his ideas. Where a contemporary such as Telemann wrote around a dozen Matthew Passions, Bach chose to concentrate all of his ideas into one complex, large-scale work. But the sheer scale of the work has, until relatively recently, blinded us to Bach’s original performance practices.

For the past fifty years we have been gradually re-discovering performance practice in Baroque works. In the case of Handelian oratorio, our knowledge is helped by the survival of detailed information about some of his performances, notably the Foundling Hospital Messiahs. There has been an understandable tendency to project the sort of forces used by Handel onto Bach’s Passions. But we now have come to accept that Bach’s forces for his Passions were remarkably small. In his recent recording, Paul McCreesh has shown how well the piece works when sung by just eight singers. The resulting performance completely re-adjusts the balances between recitative, chorale, chorus and aria in the work.

But such performances practices require special conditions; they are not for every day. So for their performance of the St. Matthew Passion the choir of King’s College Cambridge and the Brandenburg Consort under conductor Stephen Cleobury use choral and orchestral forces of a size that would have been familiar to Handel and which Bach could only have dreamed off. Even though the Brandenburg Consort play on original instruments, we must understand that this is an entirely modern performance. There can be no creative dialogue of the sort that happens when such a group might perform Messiah using forces which matched Handel’s own.

A big reason for considering this recording is the singing of the choir; from the very opening they make a stunning sound, controlled, shapely yet rich and with the familiar King’s timbre. Cleobury encourages the Brandenburg Consort to underpin them with wonderfully sprung rhythms. Only as the work developed did I start wishing for a greater sense of engagement, a more vivid projection of the words, a feeling that the choir were participants in the drama. In many ways, this is quite an old-fashioned performance. There is a very distinct divide between recitative and choral numbers, so the choir needs to work additionally hard to keep up the dramatic momentum, and this is something that does not always happen. Things do improve as the drama progresses; the chorus deliver some of the more dramatic turbae with verve and commitment and there are times when the performance does coalesce.

Rogers Covey-Crump makes an admirable Evangelist. His has the freedom and tone for this role; his care and attention to the words pays off ample dividends. But I have heard him in better voice with more of a feeling of freedom. As Jesus, Michael George is certainly passionate, but his extremely grainy voice became wearing.

Emma Kirkby is simply stunning as the soprano soloist, her tone cool but shapely and she is an object lesson in how to generate involvement with the drama of the words. Michael Chance is similarly impressive, but there were moments when I felt that he was a little pressed at the top of his voice. Still, he is a committed and passionate performer and his duetting with Kirkby has magical moments. The tenor soloist, Martyn Hill, is frankly a disappointment. I still treasure his disc of Reynaldo Hahn songs, but on this showing his voice has not weathered well even though he is a highly musical performer. David Thomas is the bass soloist, giving his usual vivid performance.

This performance, given by a team of highly musical performers, has some magical moments and would make a good introduction to the St. Matthew Passion. But ultimately, the sum was not greater than the parts; it did not move me in the way that a passion performance should.

For the St. John Passion Cleobury, King’s College Cambridge Choir and the Brandenburg Consort are joined by a different group of soloists. From the opening chorus, the choir seem to be rather more engaged, more present. There is no slip in musicianship, just a feeling that they are part of the drama. It helps, perhaps, that John Mark Ainsley makes a rather more dramatic Evangelist than Covey Crump in the St. Matthew Passion. Ainsley sacrifices something of Crump’s control and mellifluousness, replacing them with a more impassioned reading. He risks making the vocal line uneven for the sake of the drama.

The soprano soloist is Catherine Bott; she has similar musical virtues to Emma Kirkby but I found Bott’s voice had a pleasing warmth to it. I found her the more involving singing. Michael Chance again is the alto solo and is on fine form. For the tenor solos, Paul Agnew cannot be bettered, giving us dramatic involvement combined with his familiar pliable tone. Stephen Richardson has a fine, dark lyric voice and he lends Jesus’s music the dignity and sense of line that it needs. Stephen Varcoe is similarly pleasing in the bass solos.

Like the St. Matthew Passion, this is a highly musical performance; rhythms are always sprung and dance is not far away. I found the performance had greater dramatic presence than the St. Matthew Passion. Whilst it did not quite move me, it is a performance that I would treasure and return to.

The set is completed by two curiosities, a St. Mark Passion and a St. Luke Passion. It is known that Bach wrote at least five passions (at least this is what is stated in his obituary which was co-written by his son C.P.E. Bach). Nowadays, it is generally assumed that one of these is a single chorus version of the St. Matthew Passion. We have the text of the St. Mark Passion, but frustratingly there is not a scrap of music surviving in manuscript, so what we have here is a reconstruction by Dr. Simon Heighes based on the knowledge (perhaps more accurately, the assumption) that the St. Mark Passion was a parody work, using movements from other works. This was a procedure Bach used in other places. Heighes has exercised some ingenuity in assigning the Bach movements (mainly from the Trauer Ode BWV 198 and the cantata Widerstehe doc der Sünde). But, in the absence of any recitative he has used that for Reinhard Keiser’s St. Mark Passion, making up any gaps himself.

So what we have is recitative by Reinhard Keiser with arias and choruses selected and adapted by Heighes from existing music; not exactly Bach’s St. Mark Passion and perhaps only a pale shadow of the work. Still, it does receive a fine performance from the Finnish choir, The Ring Ensemble, and the European Baroque Orchestra. Three of the soloists are associated with the Hilliard Ensemble; Rogers Covey Crump, the fine evangelist, Gordon Jones whose Jesus sings almost exclusively in string accompanied arioso, but the part lies a little low for Jones, and David James, the alto soloist, who is stylish but very mannered. The solo line up is completed by the boy treble, Connor Burrowes, who copes well with the solo demands of the arias and tenor Paul Agnew who sings his one aria with magnificent style.

There are other reconstructions, Ton Koopman has provided his own for his recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. But here, Roy Goodman and his forces give Heighes’s edition a fine performance, even though for me it will remain just a curiosity.

Finally we come to the St. Luke Passion, which exists in Bach’s hand but there is some disagreement as to whether it is by Bach or by someone else. Bach wrote out other people’s music for use in his Leipzig church; his manuscript of Handel’s Brockes Passion is one of the work’s important early sources.

This St. Luke Passion is a charming, rather old fashioned sort of work, completely different in atmosphere to Bach’s fully attributed passions. It is just a sequence of recitatives alternating with chorales; no accompanied recitatives or large scale choruses. There are just five arias and one trio compared to thirty chorales and a dozen choruses.

The passion is interesting mainly in relation to the background it can shed on Bach’s passions, but in conductor Gerhard Rehm’s performance, it lacks charm and has a tendency to dourness. Taken at slow speeds, Georg Jelden makes rather heavy weather of the recitatives. Generally the performers acquit themselves creditably, but I did not think that they bring out the best in the work. As the notes give no hint of the doubt surrounding the attribution, the unwary listener may be fooled into thinking they are listening to a work securely attributed to Bach.

This boxed set is perfect for those people wishing to get to know Bach’s Passions. Cleobury’s performances of the St. Matthew and the St. John are good steady musical performances. Many people will be attracted to this disc by the name of King’s College Choir and they will not be disappointed, even if the performances do not really make a first choice for the library shelves.

Robert Hugill

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