Bach made three revisions of the St. John Passion. Richard Egarr here offers the original version of 1724. As Stephen Rose explains in excellent booklet notes, this uses the same order of movements that are found in Bach’s final 1749 revision, which is the basis for most modern performances. I believe that the 1749 version was used by Sir John Eliot Gardiner for his 2003 live version, issued on disc in 2011 (review), though this point is not specifically mentioned in the documentation. Rose says that there are many small melodic differences between the 1724 edition and the musical text to which we’re accustomed but it seems to me that many of these won’t be readily apparent to listeners who aren’t following the score. There are some differences of scoring since it appears that Bach used quite a small orchestra in 1724. In particular, a pair of violas d’amore is employed, rather than the more usually heard muted violins, in the Part II tenor aria, ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ and in the preceding bass arioso, ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’. There’s also debate about the inclusion – or otherwise – of flute parts but, as Richard Egarr explains, he decided to retain the instrument for the two soprano arias, which is what most listeners would expect to hear.
Richard Egarr uses a small, select choir, comprising four voices to each part. For his performance, mentioned above, Gardiner employs a very slightly larger group of singers (6/4/4/4). The other difference between the choirs is that, unlike Egarr, Gardiner uses male altos exclusively.
I may as well get my reservations about this new recording out in the open straightaway before going on to discuss its many positive attributes. These reservations concern the pacing of some of the choral movements. The opening chorus really raised my eyebrows for I can’t recall that I’ve ever heard it taken so swiftly. Egarr despatches it in just 7:09, compared to Gardiner’s 9:26. Perhaps Egarr was seeking to impart urgency and expectancy into the music. Perhaps he sought to convey what his tenor soloist, Andrew Kennedy refers to as the ‘swirling turbulence’ of the movement. Whatever the intention was I’m afraid it does little for me. That chorus is one of the best examples of tension in music that I know and Egarr completely fails to do it justice. Turn to Gardiner at a broader, more implacable pace, and you find the oboes given ample time to register the scrunching dissonances as their respective lines intertwine. Gardiner also gets more weight in the orchestral bass line. As a result, there’s real power and tension before the Monteverdi Choir has so much as sung a note. By comparison with Gardiner Egarr sounds hasty and, frankly, superficial. Fortunately, his excellent singers and instrumentalists can cope. It’s a great shame that this Passion gets off to such a disappointing start – though others may disagree. The good news is that things rapidly and substantially improve thereafter.
I’m uneasy with Egarr’s pacing of the chorales, however. Almost without exception the speeds he selects are quite swift – he’s almost invariably quicker than Gardiner. Sometimes this isn’t an issue but there are occasions when Egarr’s speed seems simply inappropriate. One such case is the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’. This comes in Part I after the High Priest’s servant has slapped Christ in the face. The context and the words surely indicate that this chorale should sound penitent but it doesn’t at this speed; instead it sounds perfunctory. Gardiner is slower and gets it right. Listeners may also feel that the final chorus, ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ is too fast and certainly Egarr’s timing of 6:27 is a lot swifter than Gardiner’s 7:56. Slightly to my surprise, I rather warmed to the soothing, flowing style of the piece at Egarr’s pace but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Gardiner’s treatment of the chorus has more feeling and gravitas.
Enough of these cavils. Though many of the choruses in Part II are taken quite swiftly Egarr convinces me and the precision of his choir is admirable. These singers are agile and uniformly excellent and they particularly excel in portraying the orchestrated fury of the mob in the Judgement scene of Part II. Egarr handles this very well indeed, imparting thrust, drama and consistent momentum. The instrumentalists are equally adept at all times and, without exception, the instrumental obbligati in the various arias are expertly done.
Egarr has chosen a very strong solo team. Matthew Rose sings the role of Jesus very well indeed. His tone and clear diction are admirable and he invests the music with the right blend of dignity and humanity. Ashley Riches is good as Pilate. Christopher Purves sings the bass arias very well and is not audibly discomfited by the very fast pace adopted for ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’. In ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ I admire his smooth, expressive legato though I have to say that Peter Harvey, recorded at a slight distance, is outstanding here for Gardiner; with him the music is contemplative and somewhat withdrawn. Andrew Kennedy gives good accounts of the taxing tenor arias, both in musical and emotional terms. I prefer Mark Padmore (for Gardiner) in ‘Erwäge’ where it seems to me that Padmore has an advantage. To my ears the naturally lighter timbre of his voice is better suited to the line and tessitura of the aria: his voice fits the music more comfortably. In the earlier aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ Kennedy is convincing but I have the sense that Padmore captures the anguish in the music better. I wonder if this is because he’s been recorded in a live performance and launches straight into the aria having narrated, as the Evangelist, the episode of Peter’s denial of Christ.
Egarr’s female soloists are excellent. Sarah Connolly sings ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ with fine full tone and impresses with her clarity and expressiveness. Later she gives an eloquent account of ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ Miss Connolly makes this aria the emotional heart of the whole work, as it should be. She’s partnered by an excellent gamba player, Reiko Ichese, who makes the obbligato sound marvellously fragile. I like just as much the contribution of Elizabeth Watts. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ benefits from her agile yet warm soprano voice – and the flute playing is delicious. Joanne Lunn (Gardiner) has a lighter, eager voice which is arguably even better suited to the aria and she’s less overtly expressive, which some may prefer: I find both performances winning. ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’ is very touching in the present performance. Miss Watts sings with great feeling and lovely tone. I also like Katharine Fuge very much on the Gardiner set but Elizabeth Watts is extremely affecting here.
Any St. John Passion stands or falls by the Evangelist. Happily, James Gilchrist is outstanding. We know him to be a splendid and eloquent Bach singer, not least from his participation in Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000. Here he’s at his finest. Right from the very first section of recitative you sense that the story will unfold through a first-rate, committed and sensitive Evangelist. The clarity and ring of Gilchrist’s voice and his timbre are all ideally suited to this music. His diction is exemplary and he communicates vividly yet without any unwarranted exaggeration: this is a splendid Bach stylist at work. On many occasions he’s movingly expressive yet he can also bring real bite and drama to the proceedings and he drives the Judgement scene narration through with compelling urgency. At all times I felt he was bringing the story vividly to life and drawing me in: can one ask for more? Mark Padmore excels for Gardiner. I wouldn’t care to express a preference between these two fine singers, nor do I intend to do so. Each illuminates the story in his own way and brings different vocal colours and different emphases to the role. I’m thrilled to have both of their performances in my collection.
As you may have gathered from the remarks above my preference between these two versions lies with the Gardiner version yet I would not wish to have to take just one of them to the mythical Desert Island. There is much that I admire about this new Egarr performance and, if I may extend the Desert Island metaphor, I would be very reluctant to leave several of his soloists behind on the mainland, especially James Gilchrist. Despite my reservations about some of Egarr’s tempi – reservations which not everyone will share, I’m sure – it’s a considerable achievement and I felt involved and moved as I listened.
The presentation of this recording merits separate comment. The sound achieved by producer/engineer Philip Hobbs is excellent: you can hear all the detail and the ensembles come over very convincingly. The packaging is simply lavish. The discs come in a hardback book-like package which contains excellent notes, the usual biographies and the texts. The booklet is copiously illustrated in colour. If this were not enough there’s a dedicated part of the AAM website where you can access audio and visual material relevant to this recording, including commentaries by James Gilchrist and Philip Hobbs.
I see from the booklet that early in 2015 the AAM label will be releasing a recording of the St Matthew Passion by the same artists, including an almost identical roster of soloists. I look forward to that very much.