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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
German text and English translation included
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0018 SACD [54:03 + 55:20]

Each year in the weeks preceding Easter I always listen to one or both of Bach’s great Passion settings. Sometimes this is for reviewing purposes and sometimes it’s simply for my own listening pleasure. In 2017 I had Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording of the St Matthew Passion to review and in addition I bought Mark Minkowski’s recording of the St John, chiefly as a result of reading Simon Thompson’s enthusiastic review. Both of these performances were, in their different ways, compelling experiences. This new release of the St John from King’s College reached me too late for pre-Easter listening so I decided to defer consideration of it for a short while. Amongst other things, doing this allowed me to put some distance between it and the two aforementioned Bach recordings.

The source of this recording is live performances given in King’s College Chapel in Holy Week 2016 for which Stephen Cleobury had the services of a sextet of outstanding British soloists. Pride of place, inevitably, goes to the Evangelist. I’ve heard James Gilchrist sing this particular role on disc before, for Richard Egarr (review). That was in a studio recording but he’s no less impressive in this live recording. His voice is very much to my taste: his singing is pliant, full of expression and he’s well able to impart a touch of steel or vivid drama when the music calls for it. In short, he’s a compelling narrator who really draws the listener into the story.

Neal Davies is a fine, dignified Christus and Roderick Williams is no less successful in his portrayal of Pilate. Williams also sings the bass arias and does them extremely well. Best of all, I think, is ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ to which he brings an even and expressive legato ideally suited to the music and the sentiments expressed in the arioso. Ed Lyon has technically challenging arias to sing and he puts them across very well; ‘Erwäge’ is a particular success. I enjoyed Sophie Bevan’s contributions very much. In ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ she avoids any suggestion of mere prettiness in her delivery; instead she sings with suitable eagerness and gleaming tone. Later, she’s poignantly poised in her account of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’ Iestyn Davies is outstanding, especially in ‘Es ist vollbracht’; here mention should also be made of the excellent gamba obbligato from Liam Byrne,

So, no one will be disappointed in this release on account of the soloists. I just wish I could be as positive about the choral contribution. It’s entirely authentic to have Bach’s sacred music sung by an all-male choir; that’s what Bach would have had at his disposal, though at least some of the trebles would have been a few years older than is the case nowadays. Indeed, Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt used such a choir for their pioneering complete cantata cycle and the King’s College Choir of those days took part in some of the earliest releases in that project. I never really warmed to those recordings for a variety of reasons, though I admired the achievement, and a major reason for that was the use of trebles both in the choir and to sing the soprano solos. In this present performance, we have the King’s trebles in the chorus. I’m not entirely convinced by their tuning at times – ‘Ruht wohl’ being a case in point – but more than that I just have a sense that the boys aren’t really able to convey engagement with the spirit of what they’re singing. Indeed, the choir as a whole disappoints because I don’t get a sense of great energy coming from the adult singers either. Right at the start, although the orchestra plays well in the opening chorus – as it does throughout the performance – I don’t feel sufficient tension in the opening chorus. A little later, in the scene at the High Priest’s house, when the choir sings ‘Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?’ (Art thou not also one of his disciples?) I’m afraid the King’s choir makes it sound little more than a polite enquiry. Perhaps most seriously, the turba choruses in Part II when Christ is before Pilate lack any venom or sense of the accusatory mob. I could go on but I think the point is made. The chorales are well done; it’s the choruses that leave something to be desired

I have no doubt that had I been present at one of these performances in King’s College Chapel I would have gone home well satisfied with every aspect of the performance. The trouble is that I don’t think the choral singing is sufficiently distinguished or compelling for repeated listening through a recording. Furthermore, when a performance is issued on disc it’s bound to be compared with other versions. I readily acknowledge that when comparing the King’s choir with a mixed adult choir one is not comparing apples with apples. Nonetheless, unless a purchaser explicitly wants a St John Passion with an all-male choir then it has to be said that conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Stephen Layton or Richard Egarr, who all use professional adult SATB choirs, offer much more vivid choral contributions. That, I’m afraid, is the competition that this release faces.

I mentioned earlier that the Academy of Ancient Music plays very well. Without exception, the obbligatos in the arias are splendidly done.

The SACD sound is very good and the well-presented booklet includes a valuable essay by Stephen Rose. One aspect of the presentation is disappointing. Part I and the first six numbers of Part II are on the first disc and then one has to change discs for the rest of Part II. Only about 19 minutes of Part II is contained on the first disc and I fail to see why the whole of Part II could not have been accommodated on the second disc.

I’m sorry not to be able to recommend this set more warmly. I’ve admired many of the previous releases by this choir oi their own label but here they’re not on top form. That’s a pity because the solo singing is uniformly distinguished.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Simon Thompson ~ Brian Wilson



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