Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
St. John Passion BWV 245 (1724)
CD 1: First Part (trs.1–14) [37:01]; Second Part (trs.15–20) [19:04]
CD 2: Second Part concluded. (trs.1–20) [59:55]
Martina Lins (soprano), Charles Daniels (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor), Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Michel Brodard (bass)
Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne/Michel Corboz
rec. live, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 1994.
CASCAVELLE VEL 3087 [56:05 + 59:55]

A critic of Christianity might ask why the religion needs four versions of the same story, as in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. A classical music lover might respond that the gospels gave J.S. Bach, among others, multiple opportunities to set words to music. In Bach’s case, the Passions, of which he wrote at least three, are among his most beautiful sacred music. The St. John, though overshadowed by the St. Matthew through time, ranks among his best.

All Bach’s Passions were written and first performed in Leipzig, the city he went to following his six happy years at Cöthen. It was in Cöthen that he married in 1721, started a family, and composed mostly secular music for a benevolent patron, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. When the Prince married, coincidentally a week after Bach, his bride imposed her stricter musical tastes on the Prince and his court. Bach started to look for other employment. The Brandenburg Concertos are one result of that search.

The position of Cantor at the Thomasschule (St. Thomas School and Church) in Leipzig became vacant on the death of Johann Kuhnau in mid-1722. The church council first offered the post to Georg Philipp Telemann, but he could not be released from his job in Hamburg, so Bach was approached. Prince Leopold reluctantly accepted Bach’s resignation, and in May of 1723, the Bach family moved to Leipzig where he would live out his remaining 27 years.

The Cantor was responsible for all the music in all four churches in Leipzig, and the formation of choirs for each from among the students of the school, as well as for a 20 piece orchestra to accompany major works. This St. John Passion was the first to be written, and its first version was premiered on Good Friday 1724. Bach did three major revisions, the last one the year before he died, and that’s the version recorded here.

J.S. Bach was a remarkable adapter and plagiarizer all his life, and this two-hour work has several examples, the most recognizable being the chorale In meines Herzens Grunde, in Part 2. Its tune is familiar as “All Glory Laud, and Honour” written by Melchior Teschner, born more than a century before Bach. Part 2 “The Crucifixion” is also remarkable for its structure, called “chiastic” or symmetrical. The first and last elements are Chorales, the second and second last are Recitatives, and so on for all 26 parts.

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion followed in 1727, with Luke in 1730 and Mark in 1731. There is a question about how much of the St. Luke Passion Bach actually wrote, and how much remains. The numbering system for all Bach’s works (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis – BWV – Bach Works Catalog, developed by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950) lists this St. John Passion as BWV 245, and the St. Matthew as BWV 244 even though it was composed later. The system is thematic, not chronological: all Cantatas BWV 1 – 224, all Works for Solo Lute BWV 995 - 1000. The St. Mark Passion is BWV 247, but the number set aside for the St. Luke Passion (BWV 246) is not clearly linked to it in the catalogue, nor in Grove.

The Passion According to St. John (BWV 245) ranks right below the St. Matthew Passion among Bach’s most complex and sublime vocal music. The Swedish theologian Nathan Södeblom called Bach “The Fifth Evangelist”.

Michel Corboz is fully responsible for this recording. He formed the chorus and orchestra here (Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne) in his native Switzerland in 1961 and has honed it ever since, establishing an enviable reputation for Baroque performance. The recording quality is top notch. My point of comparison is with a 9-CD boxed set by Brilliant Classics with Stephen Cleobury leading the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the Brandenburg Consort in the St. John. The Corboz recording has a refined, almost French sound which contrasts with the grittier, more Germanic accent of the British discs. Chacun à son goÛt.

The accompanying booklet contains full texts in German, French and English, and a brief write-up on the ensemble, but nothing on the soloists. All in all, this set is a moving and wonderful way to spend two hours.

Paul Kennedy

A moving and wonderful way to spend two hours.