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 Symphoniker
Wiener Singakademie/Fritz Lehmann
rec. live, 6 April 1955, Grosser Kozerthaussaal, Wien. Sung texts available 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 vocalist’s art.

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 the Berlin 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.

Dominy Clements

Interesting, but ultimately one for the specialists.