Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johannes Passion (1725) [110.10]
Machteld Baumans (soprano)
Maarten Engeltjes (alto)
Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Mattijs van de Woerd (bass)
Evangelist - Nico van der Meel (tenor)
Jesus - Frans Fiselier (bass)
La Furia ; Concerto d’Amsterdam/Nico van der Meel
rec. October 2007, Nederlands Hercormde Ker, Rhoon. SACD
QUINTONE Q08001 [58.13 + 51.57] 

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 in 1728.
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 use.
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 take.
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 emotional heart.
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 at least.
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 back to.
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.
Robert Hugill
Outgunned but if you are interested in Bach’s second version then certainly you should hear this disc.