Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion, BWV245 [106:43]
Charles Daniels (tenor) – Evangelist; Stephen Varcoe (bass) – Christus; Stephan Loges (bass) – Pilate; Judith Cunnold (soprano); Bethany Seymour (soprano); Caroline Sartin (alto); Robin Bier (alto); Jason Darnell (tenor); Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Yorkshire Baroque Soloists/Peter Seymour (harpsichord, director)
rec. Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 2010. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD209 [33:27 + 73:16]

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.
John Quinn

Quite a lot to enjoy and admire but this St John doesn’t disturb existing recommendations.