Bach's St John Passion
is available in many
recordings. The differences regard the interpretation, but also the
version which is used. Scholars distinguish four versions. The first
dates from 1724 which can be reconstructed with the help of the material
from the version of 1749. It is this version which is mostly used, and
that is also the case here.
The tutti - the opening and closing choruses, the turbae
the chorales - are performed with three voices per part. For reasons
which I don't understand the B section of the closing chorus 'Ruht wohl'
is sung by four solo voices. The solo parts are sung by members of the
ensemble, with the exception of the parts of the Evangelist and Jesus.
The tutti sections are the best parts of this recording. The turbae
are particularly impressive and the excitement of the crowds comes across
very well. These choruses also contribute to the dramatic character
of this performance. That is also due to the fact that there are very
few breathing spaces between the recitatives, choruses and arias. I
found the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher' a little disappointing.
Its depth fails to come across mainly because of the swift tempo. That
is especially regrettable as it sets the tone for the whole work, underlining
the role of Jesus as the real director of the story as it unfolds.
The chorales are often the weak spots in performances of German sacred
music. Here they are surprisingly good: much attention is paid to the
text, the stressed syllables are clearly marked and the articulation
is excellent. Undoubtedly these features are the result of Alexander
Weimann being of German birth and having a thorough understanding of
the German language and culture of Bach's time. He is probably also
responsible for the pronunciation of the soloists. That is mostly remarkably
good, although in some cases it is notable that the singers are not
native German speakers.
The exception is Jan Kobow, a seasoned interpreter of the role of the
Evangelist in Bach's Passions. He delivers an engaging account of this
part here, in a truly speech-like manner. His interpretation is not
devoid of emotion, but never goes overboard. The tempo of the recitatives
in the first part is a little too slow; that obviously is the choice
of the performance's director, though. Stephan MacLeod is of Swiss birth,
and I don't know if German is his first language. However, his pronunciation
is flawless, and his performance of the role of Jesus has just enough
authority. I don't find his voice particularly attractive, but that
is a matter of taste. I regret the slight tremolo which often mars his
singing, and does so here too. The arioso 'Betrachte meine Seel' is
beautifully sung, though.
In comparison to the generally impressive performances of the tutti
sections the arias and ariosos are a mixed package. The best of the
soloists is Shannon Mercer who shines in 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls'.
The articulation is perfect and the dynamic shading effective. Agnes
Zsigovics has a very nice voice, and she sings 'Zerfließe, mein
Herze' very well. However, she shows little sensitivity to the text
and the performance is too straightforward. That also goes for 'Von
den Stricken' in which Matthew White is a bit too loud and falls short
on expression. Jeremy Budd does considerably better in the short aria
'Ach, mein Sinn'. Lawrence Wiliford delivers a convincing interpretation
of the other tenor aria, 'Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken'.
The dynamic shading on the long notes is especially good.
'Es ist vollbracht' is sung by Meg Bragle, who has a rather dark and
strong voice; she sings with a good amont of expression. Unfortunately
the performance is harmed by an incessant vibrato. It is not very wide
and obtrusive, but clearly noticeable and definitely not required here.
There is a strong contrast between the A and B section which fits in
the overall dramatic character of this performance. I don't quite understand,
though, why the repetition of the text of the A section, "Es ist vollbracht",
is sung piano
The role of Pilate is taken by Nathaniel Watson who is not entirely
convincing. I find his singing too pathetic and not very speech-like.
That also damages the performance of the aria 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen
Seelen' in which the balance with the choir is not ideal. The same goes
for 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen'. Joshua Hopkins, who
gives a rather good account of the role of Peter, is miscast here. He
shows a complete lack of sensivity to the text and his voice is rather
harsh and loud. I sorely missed the tenderness and warmth this magnificent
and moving aria requires.
The pros and cons of this recording keep each other in balance. The
main virtues are the performances of the tutti sections, in particular
. The dramatic character of this Passion comes off
very well. However, despite some good performances, the weaknesses in
the solo parts prevent this recording from being unequivocally recommendable.
Even so, it is definitely a performance which belongs in the better
than average category. As such it should be considered by those who
look for a recording of Bach's St John Passion
Johan van Veen