We know that Bach’s St. John Passion was performed
four times during his lifetime (1724, 1725, 1728 and once during
his final years) but there is no definitive handwritten score.
Bach produced one for the St. Matthew Passion and seems
to have started, but not completed, one for the St. John
Passion. So our knowledge is dependent on the set of parts
which does survive.
For each of the performances, Bach made changes to the score;
that we do know. We have no idea why he made the changes and
when it comes to the 1725 version, this leaves us with a bit
of a puzzle. For the performance of the St. John Passion
on 30 March 1725, Bach replaced the introductory chorus, the
closing chorale, and two tenor arias, also adding an extra aria.
So we have a new bass aria with chorus (11+) Himmel reisse,
Welt erbebe, the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn (13) is
replaced by Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen und ihr Hugel,
the bass arioso Betrachte, meine Seel, mit (20) is removed
and the tenor aria, Erwage, we sein blutgerfarbter Rucken
is replaced by Ach windet euch night so, geplagte Seelen.
The wonderful opening chorus, Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen
Ruhm is replaced by the quieter, less impressive choral,
O Mensch, bewein’ dein Sunde gross and the final
choral has changed. The biggest loss in all this is, I think,
the opening chorus which, with the final chorus Ruht wohl,
has always been the highlight of the work for me.
For the final two performances in 1728 and after, Bach reversed
these changes and reverted to his original text. In his article
in the CD booklet for this new recording of the 1725 version,
Nico van der Meel suggests that the Leipzig Town Council considered
that the first version of the St. John Passion was overly
theatrical and that the choices of text were too theologically
liberal. This does not explain quite how Bach managed to get
the authorities to agree with reverting to the original version
The history of baroque performance is littered with such conundrums;
even if we know exactly what happened, we often don’t
know why. All we can do is perform the music and listen with
our ears. This new recording from Concerto d’Amsterdam
means that we can listen to the 1725 version and judge for ourselves.
The instrumental forces that Bach used in 1725 were probably
quite modest. This fact, combined with the changes, means that
this version is rather quieter and more contemplative. Certainly
the opening chorus comes as a bit of a surprise when one is
familiar with the standard version.
Van der Meel’s choir, La Furia Ensemble, number sixteen
singers and there are nineteen instrumentalists. Whilst not
one to a part, we are certainly closer to the size of ensemble
which it is reasonable to think Bach might have been able to
Besides directing, van der Meel also sings the Evangelist. He
is fluent and light-voiced, the tessitura sitting quite comfortably
with him. His delivery is easy, perhaps too easy, as I felt
that he never quite dug deeply into the heart of the piece.
This is one of the problems with any performance of Bach’s
passions. No matter how much you might appreciate the performing
ethos behind a particular performance (period, one-to-a-part,
symphonic), the performers have to move you emotionally as well.
Listeners can find themselves profoundly moved by performances
which are well outside the preferred performing ethos. Put quite
simply, van der Meel’s competent, easy-going approach
just does not move me.
By contrast, his Jesus is Frans Fiseler who has a lovely voice
and a profoundly resonant delivery, both musically and emotionally.
The four soloists are, I am afraid, a rather mixed group. If
you heard them in concert you would find them acceptable, perhaps
rather more so. On disc, with repeated listening, things are
not quite as comfortable. Soprano Machteld Baumans is, at best,
rather uneven. Her first aria is sung with nice tone, but she
seems rather pressed at the top of her voice and her passagework
is smudgy. In her second aria this continues with the suggestion
of some questionable tuning. Both of these arias sounded as
if they should have gone back into the studio for just one more
Alto Maarten Engeltjes has a lovely warm voice and his second
aria is just beautiful. Here, and particularly in his first
aria, his delivery can sometimes be a bit choppy.
Tenor Marcel Beekman has the two replacement arias, so is delivering
relatively unfamiliar material. The first shows him to have
a nice lyric tenor voice, but he struggles a bit with the aria’s
lively juxtaposition of the dramatic and the lyrical. In his
second aria I wanted a greater feeling of continuity and I sensed
that the singer might be struggling somewhat with Bach’s
chromaticism and lively line. He is accompanied here by some
fine wind playing. In the final tenor arioso, Beekman delivers
the music in a more than creditable manner but doesn’t
seem to dig very far under the surface, missing the piece’s
Bass Mattijs van de Woerd has a warm, baritone-ish voice. He
rather labours his runs and the voice loses focus in the low-lying
passages. Even so, his heart is certainly in the right place.
The chorus sing lightly, and in some of the turbae have
a tendency to peck at the notes. In the final chorus, Ruht
wohl, I wanted more emotional depth. The singers seem content
to skim quietly over the music’s surface.
The instrumental players are all a credit and provide neat accompaniment
and some very fine instrumental solos. Van der Meel is to be
complimented on his double duty of singing Evangelist and directing.
The CD booklet includes an informative article on the background
to this version of the work, plus the full text in German. There
is no English translation of the libretto which is a problem
for those passages new to this version. It seems a shame that
the record company could not have provided these in English
With some recordings, you want to like them but simply find
that you can’t. This one’s heart is in the right
place, but there are too many small points which I keep coming
As a choice for the St. John Passion this disc is outgunned
by quite a few other recordings. The singers just do not get
to the work’s emotional kernel. That, and the limitations
of the solo singing, rule this performance out as a general
library choice. If you are interested in Bach’s surprisingly
different second version of the piece, then certainly you should
hear this disc.