Samples & Downloads
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion BWV 245 (1724) [120:14]
Ula Graf (soprano), Marga Hoeffgen (alto), Julius Patzak (tenor),
Gérard Souzay (baritone), Walter Berry (bass)
Wiener Singakademie/Fritz Lehmann
rec. live, 6 April 1955, Grosser Kozerthaussaal, Wien. Sung texts
availabel on the Web
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1238 [63:24 + 56:50]
This is a St. John Passion in the grand old style, with
the opening chorus Herr, unser Herrscher coming in at
a stately 12:09, where current thinking will usually bring it
in a good 3 or 4 minutes shorter. Still, we don’t go in for
a live Viennese recording from 1955 with the idea of hearing
zippy HIPness. Book-ended with a 12:06 penultimate Ruht wohl
this kind of treatment can also carry its own emotional
power. The interest here is in having a window into the past,
and the strengths in a fine team of soloists whose character-filled
tones are for some still representative of a golden age of the
Indeed, once having waded through the opening chorus there are
plenty of delights. Walter Berry’s bass tones are refined and
nasal, and Gérard Souzay is the best of the men: resonant, imposing
and expressive. Julius Patzak’s tenor is clear, though a little
squeezed here and there, and with some shocking swoops also.
Marga Hoeffgen is an alto of the old school, with vibrato set
permanently to ‘on’ and ‘wide’, making the words a little harder
to follow and the dynamics rather restricted, though I admire
her sensitive phrasing. Ula Graf tops the soloists with a rather
nervy vocal colouration.
The choir is fairly well disciplined if rather huge-sounding
to modern ears – rich in vibrato and certainly given more weight
in the balance than the orchestra. They sound nicely restrained
in the best of the chorales and sprightly enough in more dramatic
passages, such as the interjections of Und hannas. Recitatives
are accompanied by an organ, notes sustained. The Vienna Symphoniker
sounds fine enough if a little recessed in the audio picture.
They give the impression of being a little lacklustre and not
greatly inspired, though this may be a side-effect of the balance,
making them sound more as if they are in an opera pit rather
than a full stage presence. The ‘live’ aspect of the recording
is represented with some nice bumps, clatters and coughs.
The recording isn’t announced as mono, though it most assuredly
is. The sound restoration has been done by Albert Frantz using
an Algorithmics Audio Repair Processor, and a very good job
has been done with what sounds like some rather dodgy material.
I suspect a few dropouts have been patched, speed changes between
tape recorders, and perhaps the balance worked on so that some
of the solo voices don’t flood the entire sonic picture. There
is virtually no tape hiss, but while I would have appreciated
a little more treble neither is the sound too squashed. Period
technology always means some instruments come off better than
others, and the usual leathery oboes are par for the course,
though most of what can be heard is good enough, and the ultimate
result is actually fairly clean and certainly worth the effort.
By way of orientation, I’ve been having a listen to the 1954
recording with the Gewandhausorchester with Günther Ramin on
Classics label. It shows both familial similarities with
this Music & Arts release as well as a few striking differences.
Slow tempi bring the whole thing in over 2 hours and 10 minutes
and yes, that opening chorus is a good and hefty 11:49. Harpsichord
added to the recitatives adds impact and emphasis to the drama,
and there is a good deal more contrast in the ‘acting’ from
the soloists. Children’s voices in the choir give it some rough
edges, and the orchestra is, if anything, more muddy and distant
than in Vienna and with a sheet of tape hiss to hide under as
well, so as ever it’s a case of swings and roundabouts with
these historic recordings.
By all accounts Fritz Lehmann was a fine conductor, and this
would have been one of his last recordings as he died while
conducting a performance of the St. Matthew Passion less
than a year after this St John Passion. Music & Arts
also has his St Matthew Passion with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
and other stars on CD-1091, and his DG Brahms Ein Deutsches
Requiem is a classic (see review).
The booklet for this release has informative texts, though
the sung text is only represented by an internet address. For
all its dated feel, this recording does have a sense of narrative
form and a good deal of historic interest, but it will ultimately
be one for specialist collectors.