Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1739)
Johannes Passion BWV 245, Version IV (1749) [109:45]
Sabine Goetz (Ancilla), Amaryllis Dieltiens (soprano); Elisabeth Popien, Alexander Schneider (alto); Hans Jörg Mammel (Evangelista), Georg Poplutz (tenor); Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Petrus, Pilatus), Markus Flaig (bass); Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel
rec. May 2011, St. Osdag, Mandelsloh, Germany
ACCENT ACC 24251 [59:53 + 49:52]
History tells us that J.S. Bach’s Johannes Passion was performed for the last time under the direction of the composer in 1749, as part of the Leipzig Good Friday Vesper tradition of performing a large-scale musical passion to mark the end of the church year. In revising the work for this occasion Bach went back to his original 1724 version, but also updated his score by incorporating some new instrumental elements and adapting some of the texts. The instrumental ensemble was extended with the addition of a harpsichord alongside the organ, the bass of the instrumental ensemble strengthened by the addition of a contrabassoon, and the woodwinds for several of the ‘turba’ choruses being reinforced by strings.
A brief internet search shows a 1990 recording on Capriccio 60023-2 directed by Hermann Max to be the first of this version to be released. This is still quite a strong contender with a fine narrative feel, if a little dryly recorded and matter-of-fact at times, and with plenty of wobbly vibrato amongst the soloists. Max also later revisited the work to record the Robert Schumann arrangement (see review). Collectors of Bach’s cantatas and choral works may be aware that the BIS recording (see review) with Masaaki Suzuki also uses the 1749 score, and this is the recording with which this Cantus Cölln recording will have to compete.
There is one thing I don’t understand about this recording from the outset. This 1749 use of the harpsichord is mentioned in the booklet notes and is generally acknowledged as being an aspect of Bach’s forces in this last performance, yet it is entirely absent in this recording. Suzuki gamely has his harpsichord adding crisp accents to the opening chorus, and the instrument is present throughout the performance. You may or may not prefer the addition of a harpsichord to both the accompaniments and the choruses, but if you are expecting it to appear alongside Cantus Cölln you are in for a disappointment.
I make no assumptions as to the superiority of any given recording over another in advance of writing a review, but knowing the Suzuki recording is pretty hard to beat and having forgotten that his used the 1749 version before pulling it out as use for a reference, I did have some trepidation in pitting the two against each other. Suzuki has a substantial chorus to back his strong line of soloists where Cantus Cölln is very much on its own in this Accent recording. With only single strings, the entire setting with Konrad Junghänel has a very much chamber-music aspect. I don’t have any intrinsic problem with this, but with the upper string texture rather scrawny against the sustained noted of the winds in the opening Herr, unser Herrscher there are immediately some concerns. The advantage of fewer musicians should be heightened transparency, but when string lines are as good as inaudible in the tuttis such advantages are washed out pretty quickly. Don’t you have the feeling of the tempo speeding up at certain points as well in this opening number? Better this than a sensation of slowing down, which I have from the opening of John Eliot Gardiner’s more recent Monteverdi Choir recording.
Taking the soloists in order of appearance, Hans Jörg Mammel is a very good Evangelista, more on the light side of dramatic and with some ‘pink’ colouration in the voice in recitativos, but having plenty of expression and a fine sense of proportion. Markus Flaig as Jesus has a restrained authority, appropriately gentle, but arguably with a bit too much messa di voce to carry Bach’s more expressive lines, such as in the Betrachte, meine Seel aria. Elisabeth Popien is good but perhaps a little underpowered, sinking rather in the balance with the lower notes of Von den Stricken. Soprano Amaryllis Dieltiens sings with an attractively pure tone in Ich folge dir gleichfalls, as does tenor Georg Poplutz as evidenced in Mein Jesu, ach! Wolf Matthias Friederich appears later on, fronting the backing vocals in Bach’s masterful Mein treurer Heiland, again with a heightened messa di voce which is just a little too much artificially imposed tenderness for my taste. Sabine Goetz takes Zerfließe, mein Herze with panache, though running short on air with a few of those long phrases at times, and sounding a tad fragile and thin in the lower notes.
You can’t expect too much contrast between solo and chorus when the soloists form the chorus, but with the two vocal quartets placed antiphonally Konrad Junghänel makes the best of the forces at his disposal and the effect is less extreme than in some of Joshua Rifkin’s single voice to a part recordings. The choruses don’t have as much impact as with Suzuki, but do contain plenty of on-the-edge drama. Where you miss sheer numbers is at key points such as the mob calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, a moment in this recording where the word weg comes uncomfortably close to ducks quacking. The chorale numbers are however very nicely done indeed, and there is a ‘clean’ feel to the performance as a whole which does indeed have its attractions.
It’s easy to become bogged down in historical features and different versions with a work like the St John Passion, but in the end it’s the quality and commitment in the performance which makes the difference.Top recommendations of the St John Passion include both John Eliot Gardiner’s first DG recording with the Monteverdi Choir, and his more expansive performance on the Soli Deo Gloria label, SDG 712 (see review). For that line which draws both on musical weight and dramatic urgency I still plump for Masaaki Suzuki on BIS-CD-921-22 however, also available in a lower priced set together with another top performance in the St Matthew Passion. While I prefer Suzuki, I also admit that comparing him with Junghänel is comparing cheese with chalk as the two approaches are very different indeed, the differing results inevitable, and long vive la difference.
The full text is given in German, English and French in the booklet which is attached to the foldout digipack. Despite all the minor moans and quibbles, Accent is to be complimented on the transparency and detail in their recording, and as a small-scale performance this Cantus Cölln does have many fine qualities. This is the kind of anti-warhorse recording which makes one realise large forces are by no means essential to create a moving experience in this work. What the collective vocal and instrumental forces lack in sheer heft they do acquire in a feeling of nimble flexibility and an ability to conjure the utmost tenderness. With sensitive and highly expressive playing from beginning to end this is a performance which commands a good deal of respect. It is certainly one with which I can live happily, and will almost certainly learn to appreciate increasingly over time. The hardened and realistic record shop employee in me has to see this more as an interesting and worthwhile but somewhat low-key alternative than a genuine first choice however. I still think it’s a shame the harpsichord player didn’t show up.
Dominy Clements
A light and portable St John Passion.