This is a 'compact', contained, close and appropriately
intimate account of Bach's Johannes Passion.
It was written over the first winter during which Bach was responsible
for church music at the saint Thomas and Nicholas churches in
Leipzig. The performance was at the service of Vespers on Good
Friday 1724. In part because the Saint John Passion
contains more expansive, extrovert and discursive music than
the Matthew Passion, and in part because its geographical
settings are more explicit (the Kidron Valley, the palace of
the high priest Kaiphas, at Golgotha, and at the burial site),
it's seen as more overtly dramatic, more unrestrained
and generally less reflective than the Matthew Passion.
In that way the St John would seem potentially to confirm
the fears of Bach's Leipzig employers that the Cantor
might be tempted to write music of more operatic and pious intent
Director and violinist, Monica Huggett's, conception
strikes an interesting balance. It's neither so outgoing
yet intense as that of Eliot Gardiner (on Soli Deo Gloria, 712)
nor as restrained as that of Sigiswald Kuijken and Gustav Leonhardt
(on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 667402). Huggett, her soloists,
Cappella Romana and the Portland Baroque Orchestra are more
down to earth; more transparent in, for instance, 'pushing'
the recitatives our way in order to make their impact. They’re
more 'busy' in exposing the unfolding story to
us. There is less declamation, more narration. Although there
are places where the singing has to be described as imperfect,
on the whole it's convincing and pleasing.
It's almost impossible for us to respond to either of
Bach's extant Passions as his congregations must have
reacted in the 1720s: the previous models were more dour, more
formulaic, purely Biblical, more … 'routine',
almost. Huggett's unfussy, almost at times undemonstrative
approach might well come close to (such) aspects of Bach's
first performances - aware as he was that eyebrows would be
raised at the chromatic runs, say in Da führeten
sie Jesum [CD.2 tr.2]. Thus the dramatic qualities - even
of the dialogues and responses - have been downplayed in this
account; not drained. It’s also more implicit because it's
expected that you pay close attention to the words.
The articulation and enunciation of the text are very clear
indeed at all points by all performers. This is a period instrument
performance too. Some attempt has been made to use authentic
combinations of instruments … flutes are omitted, for example,
which confers more of a genuinely Baroque and less Galant
sound. Yet the inclusion of both organ and harpsichord and an
appropriate array of strings keeps the work's richness.
Huggett is more specific: the Saint John Passion has
for her been more intimate, more immediate, on a smaller scale
than the colossal Matthew Passion. Indeed such is the
overall impression that this compact yet inquiring interpretation
makes on the listener. It attends to detail, ferrets out the
particularities of tone, mood and intention of each aria, chorus
and recitative. It is full of expression, yet fails to linger
when to do so would be asking more of the forces involved than
they should bear. The obbligato working with Erwäge, wie
sein blutgefärbte Rücken [CD.2 tr.6], for instance, is
there emphatically to support, point up and colour the text;
not as a decorative afterthought.
At the same time such singing as this here by Jacques-Olivier
Chartier is spontaneous, alive and with every effort to be 'real'
and immediate, rather than oratorical. Again, couldn't
this be close to how Bach imagined his work should be received
at its first performance?
Huggett supplies a short note in the serviceable booklet which
also contains text in German and English. In it she is careful
not to allude to the continuing debate or controversy about
the forces (one to a part, or not) which Bach may or may not
have used - and hence what a historically-aware performance
in the twenty-first century should aim for. Yet by employing
one to a part she allies herself firmly with those who believe
that the grandeur and impact of Bach's music is just
as evident in a 'chamber' environment and with
chamber forces as when any more expanded size of instrumental
and vocal performers is used. Indeed, the vigour, drive and
careful diction, the emotional charge, sensitivity and sense
of ensemble all allow Bach's highly emotional Passion
to affect us as it should. The humanity of the religious occasion
which it marks is never in doubt. Our ability as listeners to
empathise and identify with the protagonists is neither compromised
nor overdone. A good balance.
The acoustic of St. Anne's Chapel at Marylhurst University
in Oregon could never be described as resonant or overwhelming.
Intimacy and immediacy again. Huggett's tempi never lag.
Whilst this may not be a first choice for your Saint John
Passion, it certainly carves out a niche for itself and
is worth hearing.
This is a compelling, persuasive yet smaller-scale period instrument
account of Bach's less well-known Passion by performers
who obviously adore the work and bring out most of its strong