Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) St John Passion (1724 version)
James Gilchrist – Evangelist
Neal Davies – Christ
Sophie Bevan – soprano arias
Iestyn Davies – alto arias
Ed Lyon – tenor arias
Roderick Williams – bass arias
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury
rec. live, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, 21-22 March 2016 KING’S COLLEGE KGS0018SACD [54:03 + 55:20]
The week of Easter is a busy one for the King’s College Choir, much more so than Christmas. As well as their liturgical duties for the days from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday, the choir normally mount one large scale Easter choral work every year. Last year it was the St John Passion, and this disc captures their live performances from Holy Week 2016.
It’s on the College’s own label, and the choir is obviously meant to be the biggest draw. In actual fact, however, they’re probably the performance’s weakest link. 2016 wasn’t a vintage year for them, and the boys sound unfocused and hollow throughout. In general, even though Bach probably used them in Leipzig, I’m not a fan of boys’ voices for this music – I much prefer the deeper artistry that adults bring – but they can have a very good impact: just listen to Edward Higginbottom’s New College, Oxford recording to hear it done well (review). They don’t work well here, unfortunately. They boys regularly stretch for the note (the legato quavers of the opening chorus aren’t taken well), and they sound almost squally in the final choruses. The turba choruses of the second part are especially iffy – listen to Wir haben keinen König den den Kaiser to see what I mean – and while the men are more often secure, even they sound a little off colour when launching the fugue of Wir haben ein Gesetz.
Elsewhere, the performance is very good. Stephen Cleobury has been conducting this work for decades, and knows what he is doing when it comes to shaping Bach’s great phrases. The orchestra respond to him very well (better than the choir!) and make a beautiful sound, the only misstep being a rather preponderant plucked sound from one of the continuo players during the tenor’s great Erwäge aria. The soloists are excellent, too. James Gilchrist seems to be the British go-to man now when it comes to singing the Evangelist, and he brings his huge experience to shaping every phrase with meaning and feeling: listen to the way he relishes the several iterations of “wärmete” (warmed) in Part One to let one example stand for many. Neal Davies is an excellent Christ, too, bringing his great dramatic experience to play, and sounding especially compelling in the dialogues with Pilate. Sophie Bevan sounds ever so slightly off colour in Zerfließe, mein Herze, but is excellent in Ich folge dir gleichfalls. Iestyn Davies is utterly magical in his two arias, especially a marvellously deep Es ist vollbracht. I’m not always keen on Ed Lyon’s voice, but he uses it to very beautiful effect in the great Erwäge aria, as well as scourging darkly in Ach, mein Sinn. More so than usual, Roderick Williams makes you wish the bass had been given more to do, and the beautiful honey of his voice is balm to the ears, even though he struggles a little to make his quavers accurate in Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen.
This is a perfectly serviceable St John Passion, and you could even argue that it’s a good entry level recording for somebody new to the work who knows the name of the choir and is drawn in by them. The low price and the inclusion of full texts and translations (something missing from the earlier, on the whole more successful recording by the choir on Brilliant Classics - review) will also help. Seasoned Bachians, however, will find better elsewhere, nearly always with adult voices. I still love Gardiner’s first recording on DG for the immediacy of its drama and the magnificence of its singing (I haven’t heard his second - review), and Masaaki Suzuki’s Japanese recording has also blazed a trail to the top (review).