Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. John Passion BWV 245 [114:47]
Katharine Fuge (soprano); Joanne Lunn (soprano); Bernarda Fink (alto); Mark Padmore (tenor) – Evangelist and arias; Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass) – Jesus; Peter Harvey (bass) – Pilatus and arias
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 22 March 2003, Kaiserdom, Königslutter
German text, English, French translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG712 [35:25 + 79:24]

This is Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s second recording of the St. John Passion. His previous version was made under studio conditions for DG Archiv as long ago as March 1986. It’s been a much-admired staple of my collection – and the collections of many others, I dare say – for many years. This new account is a live recording, taken from a single performance, which was broadcast by the German radio station NDR Kultur.

The performance was given at the Collegiate Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Königslutter, which is also known as the Kaiserdom (or Emperor Cathedral). The concert in question was the first in a series of Bach concerts involving Gardiner and his team, which has been in train for several years now. I note from the booklet that several other major Bach choral works have since been given and I hope that further recordings will therefore follow on the SDG label.

I’ve found listening to this new account of the St John Passion an enthralling and moving experience. Chief among its many attractions is the Evangelist of Mark Padmore. Tastes will vary but in my view his account here is absolutely superb. His voice is not as sweet and mellifluous as that of the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the Evangelist on Gardiner’s earlier recording and I wouldn’t want to be without Rolfe Johnson’s interpretation. However, Padmore is even better at the dramatic side of the role – not least in the scene before Pilate in Part II – yet he is excellent also in the more meditative stretches of the narrative. Thus, he conveys beautifully the pathos of Christ giving his mother into the keeping of St. John and the anguish of Peter after his threefold denial of Christ. Every word is crystal clear – and in what seems to me to be excellent German - his phrasing is faultless and he paces the recitatives intelligently. I can say no better than that Padmore brings the story vividly and convincingly to life in one of the best assumptions of the Evangelist’s role I’ve heard.

As if that were not enough he sings the tenor arias also. He delivers the demanding ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with ringing conviction and I was interested to note that while the pace of this aria is not much different from that adopted in 1986, Rufus Müller appears somewhat discomfited by the speed on that recording and the difficult dotted rhythms sound jagged, as if delivered under pressure. Padmore is much more convincing. The tortured aria, ‘Erwäge’ finds him in wonderfully fluid and plangent voice and he sings it superbly.

Among the other soloists, Hanno Müller-Brachmann makes a dignified Christus. He has a fuller, richer voice than Stephen Varcoe (1986). By comparison I’m afraid Varcoe sounds rather plain and I much prefer Müller-Brachmann. The bass arias and the role of Pilate are in the very safe hands of Peter Harvey, a stalwart of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. He’s a fine Pilate and he does the arias very well. ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ requires a mobile voice and Harvey delivers. Later, he spins firm, sustained lines in ‘Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen’.

The soprano arias are shared between Katharine Fuge and Joanne Lunn; both excel. Miss Lunn is light and agile in ‘Ich folge dich gleichfalls’ while Katharine Fuge’s account of ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ is heart-rending and meltingly beautiful. This is an elevated and eloquent piece of singing on her part. In the 1986 recording the alto arias were sung by a male singer, Michael Chance, who was very impressive. This time round Gardiner has opted for a female alto. Part of me misses the unique timbre of a male alto but Miss Fink’s beguiling singing soon makes me glad of Gardiner’s choice. All her singing is distinguished but, rightly, she saves her finest artistry for ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ In this aria, which is graced by an excellent cello obbligato, her performance is eloquent and deeply felt.

The contribution of The Monteverdi Choir is, predictably, very fine indeed. This is evident from the very first chorus where, supported by acute playing from the orchestra, their singing is marvellously incisive. The chorales, too, are excellently done throughout the work. But the high point of the choral contribution is the choir’s work as the crowd in the judgement scene in Part Two. This whole extended passage, driven on by Mark Padmore’s searing narration, is riveting. The choir is absolutely superb, most effectively conveying the impression of a baying mob – though the singing is never less than cultivated. Their cries of ‘Kreuzige’ are electrifying. But that’s not all: just a few moments later the clarity and precision of the singing in ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ is excellent. Later on the precision and dexterity of the singing in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’, taken at breakneck speed, really catches the urgency of Bach’s writing.

The English Baroque Soloists support all the singers, solo and choral, with playing of great accomplishment and proficiency. All the obbligatos are delivered with fine artistry and the ensemble playing is of an equally high order. The instrumentalists play a full part in ensuring that the tension of the performance is set at a high level – right from the very start of the first, suspenseful chorus and throughout.

Over all this presides Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I know some people don’t like his way with Bach, feeling that sometimes his direction of the music can be too brisk in style. Having immersed myself in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage I don’t subscribe to that view. There may be the occasional misjudgement – no conductor is infallible – but over the years I’ve found him to be a thoughtful and stirring Bach interpreter and that’s once again the case here. He contributes an extensive and fascinating booklet note in the course of which he comments that the experience that he and his colleagues had of performing all Bach’s surviving sacred cantatas in 2000 made them look afresh at the St John Passion when they returned to it subsequently. While I’m certainly not about to discard my copy of Gardiner’s 1986 recording I’d say that this new version, which has the added electricity of unedited live performance, brings new dimensions to his interpretation. I find it an involving and moving experience.

As usual, SDG’s production values are very high and the engineers of NDR Kultur have done excellent work in producing truthful, atmospheric and well-balanced sound. I hope that further recordings of Bach’s major choral works will follow from this source. For now, however, this splendid new account of the St. John Passion is something that all devotees of Bach’s vocal music should try to hear.

John Quinn

A splendid new account of the St. John Passion, which all devotees of Bach’s vocal music should try to hear.