For many people, the words 'Bach' and 'Yorkshire' used in the
same sentence evoke images of huge choral societies performing
the B Minor Mass and the Passions at a dirge pace and accompanied
by a full symphony orchestra. In fact, Yorkshire is also the
home of the York Early Music Festival, of the excellent York
University Music Department, and of the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists.
Judging by the number of London-based players in the orchestra,
I'm assuming the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists is a professional
part-time ensemble. I suspect there is some institutional link
with York University, where this was recorded and where all
of the soloists seem to have studied, but the liner doesn't
go into detail.
Their St John Passion is an impressive recording. Orchestra,
choir and soloists all deliver secure performances, and there
are some moments of real beauty. In terms of performance conventions,
we are looking at a period instrument orchestra of 14, a choir
of 20 and three soloists, with smaller parts taken by singers
from the choir. The pitch is A=415hz and the continuo organ
is tuned to Valotti temperament. Tempos are in the range of
moderate to brisk, but there are no radically fast choruses.
The continuo accompaniment is solid and largely undecorated.
The opening chorus, which is really the only chorus in the work,
puts the performers through their paces. Both choir and orchestra
come through clearly in the audio, with plenty of detail if
perhaps a slight lack of presence. The balance of the choir
is good, although the tenors struggle a little to compete. In
the orchestra, the ensemble of the strings is excellent, but
woodwind are the real stars, their individual woody colours
mingling beautifully in the introductions and obbligato accompaniments.
Elsewhere, the choir excel in their hushed chorales, which are
low key without being unduly restrained - simple but effective.
The soloists are an ideal combination, their voices distinctive
but complementing each other well. Stephen Logue comes close
to stealing the show as Pilate, and the sweetness of his tone
in the upper register suggests his potential is not limited
to bass roles. Charles Daniels is suitably declamatory as the
Evangelist; a little more tone in his recitatives might be nice,
but not if it is at the expense of his exemplary diction.
All round then, an impressive John Passion. In the grand
scheme of things, it may seem a little unadventurous for being
middle-of-the-road, interpretively speaking. But this is a performance
that takes on board many lessons from the history of the period
performance movement - with the notable exception of those from
Joshua Rifkin. It has plenty of life and never goes to excesses
of tempo or dynamics to make its point. And it doesn't force
any more drama on the work than it can handle. A coherent, articulate
and engaging performance that balances well the work's twin
identities as narrative and contemplation.