Both performances have been reissued several times, mostly by
Brilliant Classics, but on other labels as well. The CD set
gives no other information, save for the year of the original
copyright, 1995. The case also is unclear about what version
is being performed. In fact it’s a recording of the more
oft-encountered recorded 1724 version, which was premiered in
the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday, 7 April 1724.
The DVD, on the other hand, presents the version premiered one
year later in the St. Thomas Church, Good Friday, 1725. Moreover,
the CD includes an Appendix with the five movements that changed
between the 1724 and 1725 versions. So, with a little programming,
you can listen to an audio recording of either version. The
excellent notes, by Bach scholar Malcolm Boyd, address the two
versions, but the libretto is printed in German, without any
translations. Nevertheless, Brilliant Classics have created
a very capable package with this issue.
It is fascinating to compare the two versions, as well as -
what I presume to be - two differing performances by the same
forces. Boyd writes in the liner-notes that the 1725 version
was meant to “shift the emphasis of the work from an assertion
of Christ’s majesty through his crucifixion to a recognition
of human sin and repentance perhaps more in keeping with orthodox
Lutheranism.” That is clear right from the opening: “Herr,
unser Herrscher” (1724 version) is a massive da capo
polyphonic chorus, the text proclaiming “Lord, you are
our master”. The 1725 version begins with a simpler, more
subdued setting of the text “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde
groß” (O mankind, mourn your great sins). This chorus
was later transposed and used at the end of the first part of
the St. Matthew Passion.
Both readings feature truly wonderful playing from The Brandenburg
Consort. Tuning is immaculate, and on the DVD we see how much
eye contact and listening goes on amongst the players, resulting
in playing that is both exacting and passionate in equal measure.
The many instrumental solos are, without fail, beautifully realized.
Special mention must be made of the cello soloist for her work
in the unfamiliar Bass aria, “Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe”
(Heavens tear apart, the world quakes) from the 1725 version.
The writing for both the cello and tenor is fiercely angular
and disjunct, fully capturing the text’s imagery, and
thrilling realized by the unnamed cellist and Paul Agnew. It
is a shame not to have the names of the players listed, as their
obbligato passages add immeasurably to the soloists’ music.
John Mark Ainsley’s Evangelist is a vivid storyteller,
ever aware of the need not only to tell the story but also to
convey the meaning of the story. His moments of high drama,
particularly Peter’s weeping after his denial of Jesus
and the scourging of Christ, have overwhelming impact. Stephen
Richardson’s Christus is affecting, more so on CD then
DVD. The DVD audio somehow distorts Richardson’s dark
vocal timbre, making it sound muffled. Catherine Bott’s
soprano sometimes develops a steely edge, though it sometimes
is perfectly suited to the text she is singing. Michael Chance
is in fine form, the added warmth of King’s College Chapel
acoustic making his “Es ist vollbracht” more poignant
than his earlier recording with Gardiner and the English Baroque
Soloists on Archiv/DG. Stephen Varcoe contributes wonderful
singing, and makes the most of his role as Pilate, allowing
us to see a ruler struggling to grasp the difficult position
in which he finds himself.
The singing of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge proves
to be a conundrum. In both performances their singing is accomplished,
with excellent intonation and diction. Yet the tragedy of the
story is only intermittingly caught in the DVD. Too often the
singing seems disconnected. Yet on the CD it is more consistently
intense; is it possible that the DVD was made first when the
choir had only rehearsals of the work under their belt? Whatever
the reason, the choir’s performance is markedly superior
The DVD production is basic - there are no extras and no subtitles.
Ainsley was apparently asked by the director always to look
into the camera while singing. Perhaps this is meant to draw
the home viewer into the story, but I found it disconcerting
and distracting. Cleobury is clear and efficient, though hardly
inspirational to watch. I derived a great deal of enjoyment
watching some of the more unusual instruments in performance
(the viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht” and the
oboe da caccia in “Zerfliesse, mein Herze).
Despite the excellence of these performances, neither would
be a prime recommendation. For a DVD version, I would seek out
the one by the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki
on Euroarts. On CD I would go for John Eliot Gardiner most especially
the later one on his SDG label. Made after the famous Bach Pilgrimage,
the performance, warts and all, is filled with a special insight
that comes from spending so much time with the music of Bach.
All that said, these are excellent performances, well packaged,
save for the lack of translations. Those you can download.
David A. McConnell