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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion (BWV 245)
La Chapelle Rhénane/Benoît Haller
rec. 5-11 September 2008, church of the Dominicains in Guebwiller, France. DDD
ZIGZAG TERRITOIRES ZZT 100301.2 [39:49 + 76:10]

Experience Classicsonline


If one wants to make a recording of the St John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, one has to decide which version to follow. There are four and they date from 1724, 1725, around 1730 and 1749. The latter is almost identical to the first, whereas the version of around 1730 is a correction of the second. It is mostly the version of 1749 which is recorded; the version of 1725 is also available on disc, but I am not aware of a recording of the third version - which anyway is incomplete.

In his performance Benoît Haller has chosen neither of these versions, but has constructed his own. "Concretely, we have chosen the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher' from the 1724 version for its majesty, its vigour, its omnipresent symbolism, and its incredible instrumental introduction. The rest of the recording corresponds to the version of 1725". It was never performed like this in Bach's time. That seems deliberate as Haller's ambition is to show that the significance of this work "goes beyond the liturgical framework, addressing not only believers, but humanity as a whole".

Historically this is rather questionable and definitely at odds with Bach's own intentions. It is also in conflict with historical performance practice. This is not only as regards the use of a certain type of voice and instrument and a particular way of singing and playing but also extends to respect for the intentions of the composer and the circumstances under which the music was originally performed. Bach's Passions were written for liturgical use, whether modern interpreters like it or not. They reflect the ideas of Martin Luther in regard to the importance of the congregation re-experiencing, as it were, Christ's suffering and death.

Benoît Haller recognizes the unhistorical character of his approach as he writes that his interpretation isn't founded on "a quest for any sort of historical validity". It doesn't make that much difference in regard to the actual performance, though, despite his own statements. "Our emphasis on a humanity that transcends historical periods and frontiers also entailed a new way of performing this music". But the features of his interpretation he then mentions are in no way unique to this performance and are quite common in other recordings of Bach's Passions. They are definitely not specifically connected to a 'non-liturgical' interpretation.

What are the results of all these efforts to be different? The general level of singing and playing is pretty good and all participants show a good understanding of Bach's idiom. The pronunciation is also satisfying. But as a whole this recording is rather inconsistent. There are some impressive moments, but also some episodes that fail to satisfy.

The solo parts are often performed pretty well. Julian Prégardien has excellent diction and gives a good account of the part of the Evangelist. But - and that is the result of an artistic decision by the director - the tempi of a number of episodes in his part are too slow, and rhythmically too rigid. The part of Jesus is excellently sung by Benoît Arnould, and Dominik Wörner is equally good as Peter and Pilate. Their voices are probably a bit too close in character to easily tell them apart, but as everyone knows in this Passion that isn't much of a problem. These two also sing the bass arias. Benoît Arnould sings 'Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen' well, but the tempo is too fast which is at the cost of a clear articulation. Similar problems are encountered in the chorus which is embedded in this aria. 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen' is beautifully sung by Dominik Wörner, but lacks the tenderness it requires. It is also damaged by wooden playing. Wörner has a strong and dramatic voice, which is better suited to the aria in the first part, 'Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe', which he sings brilliantly. Michael Feyfar has two arias and one accompanied recitative to sing, and he does so very convincingly. In particular 'Zerschmettert mich' is very good.

'Von den Stricken meiner Sünden' is nicely sung by Julien Freymuth, but not with much expression of the text. Pascal Bertin sings 'Es ist vollbracht' - again, beautifully done, but the interpretation is damaged as the harpsichord makes too much noise between "Und schließt den Kampf" and "Es ist vollbracht" at the end of the B part. The sopranos Tanya Aspelmeier and Salomé Haller are the weak link here. Both, and in particular Ms Haller, use too much vibrato in their arias, 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' and 'Zerfließe, mein Herze' respectively. In this recording the soloists also sing the tutti parts so this damages the choruses as well. In the opening chorus, 'Herr, unser Herrscher', their vibrato spoils the ensemble. It is also a major problem in the turbae which are less than ideally coherent. These show another weakness of this recording: the under-exposure of the rhythmic pulse. A particularly striking example is 'Lasset uns zerteilen' which rhythmically speaking is a bit of a mess. In some choruses the tempo is speeded up in an almost ridiculous way, as in 'Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer'. I also noted that the text of many of the choruses is very hard to understand. The chorales come off better in that respect, and here there is far less vibrato from the sopranos. They are short on expression, though, and there is too little dynamic differentiation. The treatment of the fermatas is rather inconsistent.

The St John Passion is a highly dramatic work that comes off very well in this recording. One of the highlights is the scene of Jesus in the court of Pilate with the crowds. But the approach of Benoît Haller is one-sided. There are also some more introspective moments and these are under-exposed. I have already mentioned two arias which bear witness to that: 'Es ist vollbracht' and 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen'. The harpsichord is sometimes obtrusive and should have been used more sparingly.

The consequence of, in large, part following the version of 1725 is that the performance ends with the chorale 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes'. Many Bach lovers will miss 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein'. It seems the performers also didn't want to miss it. So if you play the second disc, don't turn off your equipment after the chorale, because 23 seconds later you get the closing chorale from the 1724/1749 version. It is very odd that this addition is nowhere mentioned in the booklet and that it hasn't been assigned to a different track. The booklet leaves something to be desired: the libretto doesn't set out track numbers and the track-list omits the timings of the various tracks.

There are some good recordings of Bach's St John Passion, all with soloists and choir. So far very few performances with solo voices and ripienists have been released. The only one I know is that by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven. He uses a somewhat larger ensemble, though, and his recording is an attempted reconstruction of the first version of 1724. It has its merits but is not really satisfying because of some serious shortcomings. That said, on balance it is preferable as it has a stronger inner coherence and is more faithful to Bach's intentions.

Johan van Veen

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