Peter Seymour established the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists as
long ago as 1973. The ensemble has become a strong presence
in the performance of baroque music following the performance
practices of the period. For this recording of the St John
Passion Seymour directs a choir of 5/5/4/6 and all the
arias, with the exception of those for bass, are sung by members
of the choir. The small band comprises three violins, one each
of viola, cello, violone and viol, pairs of flutes and oboes
plus bassoon, organ and harpsichord.
Peter Seymour has a reputation as an expert on baroque performance
practice and generally it seems to me that this account of the
St John Passion is stylish and well-considered. However, I suppose
I should say straightaway that I have one major issue with this
performance. Despite Prof. Seymour’s eminence in his field
I simply can’t understand, still less get comfortable
with, his treatment of the chorales. The majority of these are
taken too fast in my view – several of them are much too
fast - and while pacing these movements swiftly may impel the
overall drama on more readily, it seems to me that the contemplative
element is sacrificed. Indeed, on a couple of occasions the
pacing seems simply perverse. ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’
(CD 1, track 11) is one such case. Perhaps Seymour is influenced
by the fact that here the choir is commenting on the striking
of Christ at the High Priest’s residence. Surely, however,
the chorale is a reflection on that act rather than an extension
of the narrative? I was even more dismayed by his way with the
chorale in Part II ‘In meines Herzens Grunde’ (CD
2, track 12). The speed here is positively jaunty and, in my
opinion, completely at odds with the sentiment of the words;
indeed, the speed trivialises the chorale. I’ve highlighted
the two most blatant examples but in truth I was unsettled by
the speeds at which virtually every chorale is taken. No one
wants leaden speeds in the chorales but though I’m uncertain
whether the Leipzig congregations would have sung the chorales
or just listened to Bach’s singers delivering them broader
speeds than we hear in this performance simply seem more logical.
I also have to say that I thought the observance of commas in
the chorales was often a bit too emphatic and, therefore, fussy.
I’m sorry to begin the review with such a strong negative
but I’m afraid the treatment of the chorales is a significant
obstacle towards recommending this recording.
The choral singing itself is very good. Seymour has a small,
flexible group of singers at his command and their singing is
never less than incisive. They’re especially strong in the crowd
scenes in Part II – sample, for example the lightness and precision
in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ (CD 2, track 13). They sing
the opening chorus well, though Seymour’s treatment of it is
too smooth and legato; there’s not quite the bite, urgency and
feeling of suspense that I’ve heard on several other versions.
The last chorus of all is also very well done.
All the arias except those for bass are taken by members of
the chorus and the degree of success is not quite uniform. Caroline
Sartin sings ‘Von den Stricken’ well though, subjectively, her
sound is not quite to my taste. Judith Cunnold offers a nice
tone in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ though one senses that she’s
taxed at times by Bach’s demanding line, having to snatch her
breath on several occasions. Tenor Jason Darnell has one of
the most demanding solos, ‘Ach mein Sinn’. He makes quite a
good job of it though Peter Seymour doesn’t help him by choosing
a very swift speed. The pace is very similar to the one adopted
in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1986 DG Archiv recording and the
effect is the same in both cases: the dotted rhythms sound jerky
and it appears that the soloist has to snatch at the phrases.
Darnell’s colleague, Joshua Ellicott is presented with no such
gratuitous problems in ‘Erwäge’, which he does very well. This
is one of the most successful aria performances in this St.
John. Another is the wonderful alto aria, ‘Es ist vollbracht’.
This is entrusted to Robin Bier and she makes a very good job
of it, singing expressively but without any overemphasis or
excess of emotion. The viol obbligato is well done also. The
final solo contribution from a member of the Yorkshire Baroque
Soloists is ‘Zerrfließe, mein Herze’. Bethany Seymour gives
a beautifully poised reading of this poignant aria and I enjoyed
the pure, silver tone of her voice.
Stephan Loges is, as you would expect, very reliable as Pilate
and, in addition, he does the bass arias well, especially ‘Betrachte,
meine Seel’, which he delivers with fine expression. Stephen
Varcoe is Christus and, experienced singer that he is, he sings
intelligently. Unfortunately, I detect little bloom on the voice
and his sound is a bit thin at times. I fear Varcoe’s best days
may now be behind him.
Charles Daniels brings all his experience to the role of the
Evangelist and offers a great deal of finesse and insight. He
may not be quite as dramatically searing as Mark Padmore (review)
but he’s still expressive and convincing. His narrative in Part
II is particularly strong and earlier in the aftermath of Peter’s
final denial the plangent sorrow in his voice is most affecting.
The quality of the Evangelist is crucial to the success of any
performance of a Bach Passion and the choice of Daniels for
this assignment was a sound one.
As I’ve said, I do have some issues with Peter Seymour’s tempi.
However, he is clearly steeped in this score and he puts across
his vision of it convincingly. The St John is the more
dramatic of Bach’s Passion settings and under Seymour’s direction
the story unfolds with good momentum and with suitable dramatic
sense. He gets alert, responsive playing from the instrumentalists.
The recording was made in the excellent modern concert hall
at the University of York and the sound is clear and present.
The documentation, including an interesting essay by Wilfred
Mellers, is good.
There’s quite a lot to enjoy and admire about this York performance
of the St John Passion. However, there are many other
versions on the market, some of them excellent. I don’t believe
that this disturbs existing recommendations. Readers should
investigate the recording by Sir
John Eliot Gardiner
See also review by Gavin