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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johannes-Passion BWV 245 [107.17]
Veronika Winter (soprano), Franz Vitzthum (countertenor), Andreas Post (tenor: Evangelist?), Christoph Schweizer (baritone: Jesus), Thomas Laske (baritone), Bernhard Spingler (bass: Pilatus), Stefan Weible (tenor), Lucian Eller (bass: Petrus), Hille Perl (viola da gamba)
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben & Handel's Company/Rainer Johannes Homburg
rec. 5-10 May 2016, Erlöserkirche, Stuttgart, Germany
Reviewed in surround 5.0
MDG 902 1985-6 SACD [33.18+73.59]

Bach's St John Passion is a much easier work to enjoy at home because it is more dramatic and much shorter than the more famous St Matthew Passion. This is a very attractive issue, well worth purchasing, even if you have other recordings, because it offers a different perspective on one of the greatest of baroque passions.

Four things strike one about this performance: primarily the sheer dramatic force of the reading, but also the quality of the Evangelist, Andreas Post I assume, the booklet doesn't say; the wonderfully sonorous gamba playing of Hille Perl; and the presence of a splendid boys choir forming the majority of the large, 50 or 60 strong, chorus. The essay by the conductor never quite gets to grip with the numbers involved, I counted them in the photograph, but it does sound a very chorus-heavy performance compared to the much smaller forces used on the other SACD in my collection - by the Netherlands Bach Society on Channel Classics. The Stuttgart choir is very good indeed and does sound very well trained, but the clarity of words suffers along with some loss of the intimacy in the gospel story. The ability of a small group to mould the words is naturally going to be much greater, and the words do matter in this most operatic of passion settings.

The Evangelist in this Stuttgart recording is not the only voice that sounds really inside his words, though he is quite outstanding, all participants emphatically are musical actors. Then there is the importance of using boys voices. Bach had about fifty voices in his choir, though the Thomaskirche is much bigger, and that comes very close to what we have on MDG's lovely recording. The orchestral forces of 'Handel's company' are as close as possible to authentic in size and instrumentation. The booklet mentions that Bach's final, fourth, version is followed. They play with immense skill and dedication, providing a particularly strong bass line; this last played by a viola da gamba and a contrabassoon as well as the usual organ plus cellos and bass. To all this richness are added two viola d'amore: as the conductor's essay notes, more opulence. Despite being thoroughly 'authentic' this is, then, quite a big sound enhanced by the acoustic of the early 20th century Erlöserkirche which appears from its website to provide an ideal recording space.

The opening chorus Herr, unser Herrscher is hugely powerful. The heavily accented bass line being subtly varied by the excellent Rainer Johannes Homburg who makes it very clear that this story is of the greatest importance. The Evangelist is very strongly characterised as noted earlier, Jesus, perhaps appropriately, is more mild in delivery. There are several minor roles in the drama, servants, maids, even Petrus himself is a bit-part. All are handled well. The driving bass makes even the contemplative arias into mini-dramas Ach mein Sinn being a case in point. The soloists responsible all rise to the occasion. Even the chorales are given the dramatic treatment, for example the first chorale of Part 2 includes lines about Christ being spat on at which point the continuo lute gets very alliterative. Time after time Homburg displays a close focus on the dramatic details making this a very recommendable set indeed.

The packaging is worth reporting at length because it reflects a triumph of marketing over common sense.

The booklet consists of a short essay on the history of the work plus extensive biographies of the artists, all in English, French and German. What is missing, amazingly, is the words. Comparing this with the Channel Classics recording, which has a beautiful illustrated hard-back booklet complete with colour illustrations and a full parallel translation all on quality paper, the new MDG set looks rather poor. They do offer a translation in a pdf file available from their website and this adds Italian to the languages. To be useful to the listener this has to be printed out on 18 pages of A4. I reduced it to a CD booklet sized set of pages by cutting the sheets to just the German and English, not so easily possible with the French and Italian words because they are not adjacent to the German. The whole business, including stapling and trimming took me well over twenty minutes. I suspect I may be the only person to ever bother - all for the sake of Music Web International - but I have ended up with a neat printout which fits in a space in the jewel case. I could of course store the pdf on a tablet (if I owned one) or my mobile (which would then be too small to read). My question is, do the marketeers stop to think what they are offering? All this is for a set which actually costs more than any of the obvious competition.

Finally I have to note that this text contains two erroneous sections deriving from the second version of the score. First the aria for Petrus just after he denies Christ, Ach mein Sinn, is one which Bach initially removed after Version 1 then finally reinserted into this fourth version. The printed text, Zerschmettert mich, is the words for a replacement aria used only in the second version. The same applies to the final choral which, in the text is Christe, du Lamm Gottes and on the disc is the standard Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein.

Dave Billinge



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