Although there are many recordings
available, Bach's St John Passion is still far less popular
than his St Matthew Passion. For this reason a new recording
of the former usually attracts less attention than a new release
of the latter. It could be different with this recording. It
has two features which make it especially interesting. First
of all, it presents a reconstruction of the very first version
of this work. Secondly, it is performed with one voice per part,
and in this respect it could be considered the counterpart of
Paul McCreesh's St Matthew Passion.
There are no less than four different
versions of the St John Passion. Nowadays the most performed
and recorded one is the last, of 1739/49. The version of 1725,
which is quite different from that one, has only been recorded
a couple of times: the latest are by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia
mundi, France) and Peter Neumann (MDG). There is a third version,
which Bach started to prepare in 1729, but when he was told
there would be no Passion performance that year, he left it
unfinished. The St John Passion was first performed in 1724,
but the score used in that performance has been lost. Fortunately,
enough material has been left to try to reconstruct that very
first version. And that is what the Dutch musicologist Dr Pieter
Dirksen has done. It is this reconstruction which is recorded
here. Its first performance took place in the Netherlands in
There are a number of differences
in comparison with the versions which are usually performed
and recorded. Some of the recitatives and arias are more simple,
with less ornamentation. But the main difference is the instrumentation.
In this reconstruction there are no transverse flutes. Dirksen
believes that Bach originally didn't intend to use them and
that they were only added at the last moment. In his first year
as Kantor in Leipzig Bach didn't have flute players at his disposal
and the cantatas from this period don't have them as well. They
are dominated by the sound of the oboes, and when the St John
Passion is performed without transverse flutes, the oboes get
a more prominent role, which is in line with Bach's cantatas
from the early years in Leipzig. Besides, the transverse flutes
don't play such an important role in this passion in comparison
with the St Matthew: they mainly play 'colla parte' with the
oboes (opening chorus) or the violins (some of the 'turbae')
or the choral tenor, an octave higher. The arias in which the
transverse flutes are involved are both written in keys which
make them difficult to play on the baroque flute. Bach usually
composed his flute parts in D or G major, in contrast to 'Ich
folge dir' (in B flat major) and 'Zerfließe mein Herze' (in
Dirksen believes the first of the
two is a 'violin aria': Bach would hardly compose a major vocal
work without an aria with violin solo. The character of the
instrumental solo part (the articulation, for instance) is very
'violinistic'. The upper instrumental part of 'Zerfließe, mein
Herze' was meant to be played by the oboe. The key is more playable
on the oboe than on the transverse flute, and the range of
the part is much more limited than necessary for the transverse
"These two reconstructed scorings
result in an arrangement of the obbligato instruments for the
arias which is logical and far more typical of Bach." If
the aria 'Mein teurer Heiland' is left out - because it is accompanied
by basso continuo only and has more the character of a chorale
setting than an aria - the first and last of the remaining seven
are scored for oboes, the second and sixth for a solo string
instrument (violin and viola da gamba respectively) and the
third and fifth for strings. The aria in the heart is 'Erwäge',
which has the unusual scoring of two viole d'amore. This results
in a symmetry which Bach loved so much and which can be discovered
in other compositions like the St Matthew Passion and the Mass
in B minor.
When I first heard this reconstruction
I was convinced that this was how Bach had originally conceived
his St John Passion. In particular the solo violin in the aria
'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' sounds so idiomatic that I wondered
why I ever took the scoring for transverse flutes for granted.
I also thought the arguments by Pieter Dirksen in support of
his reconstruction are very plausible.
On the whole the present studio
recording of this same reconstruction is a strong case for this
very first version of the St John Passion.
One of the strengths of this performance
is its inner coherence. The singers are all first class and
completely at home in Bach's idiom. In a performance with one
voice per part, in which the singers not only perform the solo
parts, but the tutti as well, it is even more important that
the voices blend well. And that is the case here. In the opening
and closing choruses, the turbae and the chorales, one never
gets the impression of a bunch of soloists who happen to sing
together for one particular occasion.
The soloists all do well in their
solo parts. I have not always been impressed by Gerd Türk, but
here he does an excellent job in the role of Evangelist. He
makes a difference between the more dramatic and the more pedestrian
narrative moments. His diction and articulation are admirable.
Stephen MacLeod does not have a
very strong voice and perhaps lacks a little authority in the
role of Jesus, but - like Gerd Türk - I was pleasantly surprised
by his performance in comparison to what I have heard from him
on other occasions.
Caroline Stam has a beautiful voice,
with a warm and pleasant timbre, which is very suitable to the
arias she has to sing. I liked the dynamic differentiation in
the B-part of 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls'.
Peter de Groot may not have the
most impressive voice in comparison to some colleagues who hit
the headlines. His emotional involvement in his arias is strong
and makes his performances memorable. In 'Von den Stricken'
he emphasises 'völlig' (zu heilen) in the B-part. Equally eloquent
is the short pause before the closing exclamation 'vollbracht'
in the aria 'Es ist vollbracht'.
Bas Ramselaar is perhaps the best
of them all. The very tender and intimate aria 'Mein teurer
Heiland' is outstanding and deeply moving. Most admirable is
his ability to colour the words and phrases according to the
meaning of the text. Impressive is also the dynamic differentiation
within the melismas in 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen'. By the
way, I wondered why Stephen MacLeod is singing the arioso 'Betrachte,
meine Seel', whereas all bass arias are sung by Bas Ramselaar.
Charles Daniels is one of those
English-speaking singers who has a feel for German music, as
he has demonstrated on several occasions (for instance in Paul
McCreesh's recording of Schütz' Weihnachtshistorie). He sings
the two - very different - arias and the arioso 'Mein Herz,
indem die ganze Welt' admirably.
I have major problems with the
tempi in the tenor arias, though. The first one, 'Ach, mein
Sinn', is taken at a relatively slow speed. I can't figure out
why. This aria follows on Peter's denial, and expresses anxiety,
even desperation: "where shall I find comfort (...) In
this world I can find no counsel". It seems to me this
character is somewhat lost here.
The opposite happens in the second
aria, 'Erwäge'. Pieter Dirksen sees this aria as the heart of
the 'hidden symmetry' in the St John Passion, with a unique
scoring of two viole d'amore, "and it is not by chance
that this aria at the same time is by far the longest of them
all". Not in this performance: at 6:40 it is the longest,
but certainly not 'by far': 'Zerfließe, mein Herze' is only
about 20 seconds shorter. Of all the recordings I know 'Erwäge'
is here by far the fastest: most of them take at least 8 minutes.
I feel that, at this tempo, the
aria doesn't get enough weight. To me a slower tempo would be
more suitable to its meditative character and very strong symbolism.
I would imagine that Jos van Veldhoven
has his reasons for these choices of tempo, but I can't find
anything about that in the booklet.
My main problem with this recording
is the lack of drama. This is partly caused by the rather slow
tempo with which the part of the Evangelist is sung. It makes
the telling of the story rather unnatural: it isn't as speechlike
as it should be, and there is too little differentiation between
stressed and unstressed syllables and words. But it also has
to do with the 'turbae', some of which lack the sharp edges
and the power which one would expect in a piece where 'the Jews'
are portrayed as a mob.
The chorales are well sung, although
some are rather too slow again, and sometimes there is a little
too much legato. The opening chorus is sung with great expression.
I only wished there had been more accents in the melismas on
The contrast between the A- and
B-section in the closing chorus 'Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine'
are well realised. The concluding chorale contains two elements:
a prayer and a doxology. It is sung with great intensity and
The players do a great job: in
particular the oboes are brilliant. In the liner notes, Pieter
Dirksen writes: "without the doubling flutes, the oboes'
chains of dissonant suspensions sound thinner, but also more
searing". And that is certainly right: I haven't previously
heard those dissonances done as poignantly as they are here.
The use of the harpsichord for the accompaniment of the Evangelist
is certainly historically justified, but I would imagine it
takes some time to get used to it. I am less convinced about
the prominent role of the theorbo in the basso continuo.
This recording comes with an opulent
booklet, which contains three essays. The one I have already
referred to is by Pieter Dirksen in which he explains the reconstruction
he has made. In his contribution Jos van Veldhoven explains
the reasoning behind the performance with one voice per part.
There is also a third, written by Guus van den Hout, who writes
about the way Christ's Passion has been depicted in art through
the ages. The booklet also contains a number of pictures of
art objects from the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, a
museum for religious art.
The placement of the pages with
those pictures isn't always very convenient: if you want to
listen to the recording while following the lyrics in the booklet,
from time to time you have to turn two or three pages to find
the next lines.
I have certainly enjoyed listening
to this new recording, and I shall return to it from time to
time. It is a shame, though, that one of the main features of
the St John Passion, its dramatic character, hasn't been fully
Johan van Veen