Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245
Evangelist - Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Christus - Neal Davies (bass)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass) - Pilate
Polyphony; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Layton
rec. 10-13 April 2012, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
German text and English translation included
HYPERION CDA67901/2 [53:45 + 64:25]
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 and reflection.
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.
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