Stephen Layton and Polyphony perform the St. John Passion
every year around Easter time, usually at St. John’s Smith
Square in London. This recording was made in the days that followed
their performance there on 6 April 2012.
Bach revised the work several times, as is explained in the
excellent note by the eminent Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff;
this performance uses the Neue Bach-Ausgabe edition.
A few years ago Hyperion issued a recording of the other seasonal
staple of the Polyphony repertoire, Messiah (review).
That recording was widely-acclaimed; will this new Bach recording
be equally good?
Among the many advantages with which it starts is the extremely
strong line-up of soloists, including Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist.
I’ve heard Bostridge in the Evangelist’s role in
Philippe Herreweghe’s 1998 recording of the St. Matthew
Passion (Harmonia Mundi HMC 951676.78) and having been impressed
by that I was keen to hear him in this role. In my view he’s
a magnificent Evangelist though one aspect of his approach may
not be to all tastes. He is highly expressive at all times and
there are several occasions where some may feel he overdoes
the expressiveness, drawing out the line of recitative slowly
and expansively. One such example - there are several - is the
passage of recitative describing the Crucifixion itself: ‘Allda
kreuzigten sie ihn’ (CD 2, track 5). For myself, I find
this approach very convincing and of a piece with Bostridge’s
complete involvement with the drama but, as I say, some may
prefer a less overtly expressive style. The gains from this
approach are immense, witness the very moving description of
the crucified Christ putting his mother into the care of his
disciple, John (CD 2, track 7). Bostridge can be urgent too
if the text demands it, as he often is in the scene of Christ’s
judgement by Pilate. He deploys a formidable range of vocal
colouring and takes immense care over the words. The text is
delivered with great clarity throughout. He also sings the first
tenor aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. He’s vivid in
this highly demanding aria and I’m mildly surprised that
he doesn’t then go on to sing the other tenor arias.
Neal Davies is good in the role of Christ. He’s a fine
singer, as we know, and his expertise in art song stands him
in good stead here. I just have one reservation, and it’s
a purely subjective one. In the scene before Pilate there are
a couple of passages of recitative when he sounds a bit fierce,
which rather goes against the conception I’ve always had
about the demeanour of the suffering Christ. So, his response
to Pilate, ‘Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt’,
sounds to me to be more forthright than I would have expected
(CD 1, track 16). A little later when he tells Pilate ‘Du
hättest keine Macht über mich’ that sounds more
angry in tone than I associate with those words (CD 2, track
1). However, that’s very subjective and others may well
not hear the delivery in the same way; and, in any case, Davies’
singing overall is excellent. So too is that of Roderick Williams.
Like the other two principal characters he paces his recitatives
as Pilate convincingly and with intelligence. Where he really
excels, however, is in the bass arias. All are done extremely
well but ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ is exceptional.
Here Williams uses velvet tone in a gentle, inward reading of
this lovely arioso. By any standards this is high-class singing.
The other soloists are heard in arias only. Nicholas Mulroy
does the taxing aria, ‘Erwäge’ very well though
I think the music would have suited Bostridge’s vocal
timbre even better. The soprano has two of the finest arias
in the work and Carolyn Sampson excels in both. In ‘Ich
folge dir gleichfalls’ she treats us to eager singing.
Her tone is beguiling and light and this is an absolutely delightful
performance. At the other end of the emotional spectrum lies
‘Zerflieβe, mein Herze’. Here the tone is ravishing,
the line tenderly spun and Miss Sampson’s exquisite performance
brings out all the sorrow in the music in just the right way.
Iestyn Davies’s contributions further enhance his reputation.
‘Von den Stricken’ is excellent. His singing is
clear and expressive and if I say that there’s a trace
of fragility I most certainly don’t mean that as a criticism;
it’s what I’d expect in this piece. In that aria
the intertwining oboes are perfectly balanced against the singer
and contribute significantly. Equally significant is the exquisite
gamba obbligato (Richard Tunicliffe) in ‘Es ist vollbracht’.
Davies is absolutely outstanding here, offering deeply expressive
singing, his voice evenly produced. This is the most deeply
affecting aria in the St. John Passion and Davies ensures
that it is a peak in this fine account of the work.
So far the chorus hasn’t been mentioned and that’s
unfair. Polyphony show vividly just what can be achieved in
Bach singing by a fairly small professional choir, especially
in terms of such things as flexibility, attack and agility.
The choir numbers 31: 8/7/8/8; there are three female altos
and four men. The singing is flawless throughout and the attention
to detail is superb, just as you’d expect. Collectively
they bring bite and a sense of vivid drama to the scene in Pilate’s
court where they assume the character of the mob. However, for
all the punchiness in their singing in these pages of the score
- which strikes me as ideal - and their finesse elsewhere the
passage that particularly caught my attention was the brief
chorus in Part II, ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’
(CD 2, track 7). The singing here is precise and marvellously
light-footed. The closing chorus, ‘Ruht wohl’, is
beautifully shaped and the chorales are nicely varied. That
extraordinary first chorus, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’
bristles with tension, the cries of ‘Herr’ really
arresting. I usually find that you can tell if you’re
going to hear a good Passion according to how this first number
is treated. Suffice to say that on this occasion the delivery
is an accurate harbinger of what is to follow.
It’s the orchestra that launches that chorus and so they
carry the responsibility of grabbing the listener’s attention.
This the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment do magnificently.
They rack up the tension incrementally until you need
the choir to take the music to the next level of intensity.
Throughout the performance the instrumental playing is of the
highest order, mixing finesse, agility and dramatic weight according
to the needs of the moment. Without exception the obbligato
contributions are distinguished.
Stephen Layton directs a performance that is clearly rooted
in long, practical experience of the score. His tempi are judiciously
chosen and while he’s far from averse to an athletic speed
when justified, you never feel the music is being rushed. He
allows his soloists time to make their expressive points, judging
the speeds of the arias expertly. The dramatic pacing of the
ensemble sections such as the scene in the Garden and Christ’s
appearance before Pilate is extremely convincing. As a generalisation
the whole approach is light on its feet but never lightweight.
I admired this version greatly and felt caught up from start
to finish in the drama and in Bach’s scheme of narrative
It only remains to be said that Hyperion’s presentational
standards are typically excellent. The documentation is first
rate and producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have
produced the sort of admirable, clear and well-balanced sound
that invariably characterises their work. You can sample extracts
from all the tracks on Hyperion’s website.
There are many recordings of Bach’s great masterpiece
in the catalogue, quite a number of which offer fine performances,
special insights or both. This desirable new recording deserves
a place in the front rank.
This desirable new recording deserves a place in the front rank.