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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion, BWV 245 (1724) [115:38]
Peter Schreier (tenor – Evangelist; tenor arias); Olaf Bär (baritone); Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo); Roberta Alexander (soprano); Robert Holl (bass - Christ); Andrea Ihle (soprano) – Maid; Ekkehard Wagner (tenor) – Servant; Egbert Junghanns (baritone) – Peter; Andreas Scheibner (baritone) - Pilate
Leipzig Rundfunkchor
Staatskapelle Dresden/Peter Schreier
rec. February 1988, Lukaskirch, Dresden, Germany
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802052 [59:05 + 56:33]

Experience Classicsonline

Bach’s 1750 obituary claimed that he had written five passions. Only the St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727) have survived in their entirety. Two others are lost and the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247 from 1731 appears in a reconstructed version. The St. John was first performed in 1724 in the St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig. Bach primarily uses texts from the St. John Gospel with the remainder taken from variety of sources, including chorales.

The score, it seems, exists in four versions prepared for performances in 1724, 1725, 1732 and 1749 with an incomplete one from 1739. Here on this Newton reissue that I recall being released on Philips Classics, Schreier uses the 1724 edition also providing as an appendix three arias from the revised version prepared by Bach for a 1725 revival.

Throughout I found the Leipzig Rundfunkchor in fine form making a satisfying flowing sound. Their numerous choruses are marked by impressive unison, fresh, refined and often compelling. Occasionally the emphasis on certain words didn’t always make sense. I didn’t find any of the soloists to be stunningly impressive although the overall effect was gratifying.

The conductor Peter Schreier in his tenor role of the Evangelist and singing the other tenor arias is more than capable of the responsibility and demonstrates remarkable resilience. As the Evangelist he does remarkably well in the sung recitatives maintaining the continuity of the scenario. In the aria Ach, mein Sinn and the extended and difficult Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken Schreier’s tones were bright and resonant being extremely well controlled. I enjoyed the arioso Mein Herz, in dem die ganze most agreeably performed with considerable reverence. The additional arias from the 1725 version Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hügel and Ach windet euch nicht so, geplagte Seelen are well sung, bright and sparkling with the latter conveying an especially impressive piety.

Mezzo-soprano Marjana LipovŠek in her aria Von den Stricken meiner Sünden sounded a touch nervous with her usually firm voice rather lacking in fluidity. Her voice is not large being easily swamped by the pair of oboes. I enjoyed her expressive rendition of the heartbreaking Es ist vollbracht! accompanied by the distinctive viola da gamba. Olaf Bär the baritone in the bass arioso with viole d’amore and lute Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen displays an agreeably smooth timbre. In the Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen the diction is pleasing however the delivery could be more responsive.

Throughout I enjoyed the role played by soprano Roberta Alexander most notably in her Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten. She is accompanied splendidly by the demandingly hyperactive flute part. Her girl-like vocals are highly engaging if lacking a certain degree of flexibility. In Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren with parts for flute and oboe da caccia she presents with reverence her burnished high register. At times her use of ornamentation felt a touch awkward and rather inappropriate. Sturdy bass Robert Holl offering a sombre quality to his role as Christ was a touch too vigorous. I found the baritone Andreas Scheibner a rather characterless Pontius Pilate.

I do not subscribe to the notion that one particular Bach performance style is preferable to another. I enjoy hearing the traditional large-scale outings as well as period instrument approaches. For me the quality of execution is the overriding factor. I have several versions of the St. John in my collection and there are two accounts that stand out. I would recommend that on period instruments, historically informed, by Andrew Parrot and his Taverner Consort and Players from 1990 at Abbey Road Studios, London on Virgin Veritas 5 62019 2. Impeccably played and recorded, director Parrot mirrors the small forces that Bach would probably have had available using just a pair of singers to a part in the choruses. I love the intimacy and leanness of this approach for the clear tones and eloquent, crisp and clear articulation. Using traditional larger-scale forces I also greatly admire the version conducted by Karl Richter and his Munich Bach-Choir and Orchestra. Recorded in the Hercules Hall, Munich in 1964 Richter employs the services of five mainly German-based soloists who were all premier names at the time in choral singing. Richter’s forces are distinctly robust and weighty of timbre. Efficient and precise playing is coupled with a noble and distinctive measured tread in Richter’s wonderfully warm and satisfying interpretations. I have Karl Richter’s account as part of a 10 disc set titled ‘Choral Masterpieces’ that is coupled with the St. Matthew Passion, Christmas Oratorio, Magnificat and B minor Mass on Archiv Produktion 463 701-2.

The sound of this Newton Classics reissue is especially well balanced but it would have benefited from a slightly sharper focus to improve the clarity. On CD2 from track 10 the track numbering in the booklet goes awry not matching the sequence titles.

Overall this is an enjoyable account but there are superior alternative versions in the catalogue.

Michael Cookson