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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245
Julian Prégardien – Evangelist
Tareq Nazmi – Jesus
Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Ulrike Malotta (alto)
Tilman Lichdi (tenor)
Krešimir Stražanac (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Concerto Köln/Peter Dijkstra
rec. live, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, March 2015
BR KLASSIK 900909 [32:35 + 73:19]

This is the most bitingly dramatic St John Passion to have come my way in years. It’s often said that the intense theatricality of the St John Passion is the closest Bach ever came to writing an opera, and I’ve never been more convinced of that than when listening to this performance. You get that right from the opening chorus, whose very first bars make you sit up and take notice. The violins of Concerto Köln swirl threateningly beneath plangent oboes, while the chugging basses propel things forward, with the rumbling onward momentum sounding even more inexorable thanks to the very slight (but very effective) extra emphasis on the first beat of every bar. The chorus, bigger than many period bands, sound visceral when they first enter, the repeated cries of Herr sounding like exclamation marks in the texture. Peter Dijkstra then drives the performance forward with unarguable momentum that is both thrilling and, paradoxically, deeply devotional.

That is the story of the whole recording, which I found to be tremendously involving and, in fact, highly recommendable. Dijkstra is the presiding genius, and it is his sense of vision that inhabits everything else. His direction of the chorus is always utterly unfailing but also very varied. The chorales are deeply felt, and always sound appropriately devotional, and his direction of the choruses in the dramatic recitatives is biting, incisive and full of life. Listen to the scenes where the crowds haggle with Pilate to see what I mean.

The other most consistent asset of the recording is Julian Prégardien’s Evangelist, who tells the story like an Everyman who is on our side, interpreting it humanely so as to help us to understand and empathise with it. The Christ of Tareq Nazmi is also deeply affecting, conveying strength and otherness but also a deep humanity that brings him close to our experience. The Gethsemane scenes set the bar high at the outset and don’t let up, with the interaction with Pilate a highlight of his performance.

The other soloists are very fine, too. Christina Landshamer has a ripe, pure voice that makes her ideal for the great penitential aria Zerflieβe, mein Herze, as well as vigorous in Ich folge dir gleichfalls. Ulrike Malotta sings with heartfelt commitment in Von den Stricken and rises convincingly to the climax of Es ist vollbracht. Tilman Lichdi is the tiniest bit fluty in places, such as in the great Erwäge aria of Part Two, but he is fine in the angst-ridden Ach, mein Sinn. Krešimir Stražanac is driven and involved in Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen and much more meditative in Mein teurer Heiland where the accompanying chorale sounds almost like a lullaby.

The orchestra sound sweet and attractive, with the period instruments bringing benefits of clarity without the demerits of abrasiveness. The excitement of the live recording brings only gains, with nary a peep from the audience - and no applause. In short, this is a hit. Few will set aside Gardiner (trailblazer that he was) or Herreweghe (a poet where Dijkstra is a dramatist, albeit in a textually different version), but this set is well worth checking out on its own terms, though the German text in the booklet does not come with an English translation.

There is, by the way, a third disc (timing 71:39) which contains a spoken word introduction to the work, but your German will need to be a lot better than mine if you’re to have any chance of following it.

Simon Thompson
Previous review: Michael Cookson



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