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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
St John Passion, BWV 245
Julia Kleiter (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (contralto), Georg Poplutz (Evangelist), Daniel Sans (tenor), Yorck Felix Speer (Jesus), Matthias Winckhler (bass)
Bachchor Mainz,
Bachorchester Mainz/Ralf Otto
rec. 2017, Christuskirche, Mainz, Germany
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.573817-18 [2 CDs: 132:02]

For a long time the St John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach was considered the little and less interesting brother of the St Matthew Passion. Although today the 'little brother' is much more 'popular' than it used to be, it is still overshadowed by what many music lovers consider the Passion of Bach, and that will probably never change. Therefore it is quite remarkable that 2017 saw the release of no fewer than four new recordings of this work. Only one of them has been reviewed here. This year Naxos adds another one to the list.

Every performer of the St John Passion has to make some basic decisions. The first concerns the version to be performed. There are four; they date from 1724, 1725, around 1730 and 1749. The latter is almost identical with the first, whereas the version of around 1730 is a correction of the second. It is mostly the version of 1749 which is recorded. That is the case with the recording reviewed here as well.

The second decision regards the number of performers to be involved, especially in the vocal parts. Since the early days of historical performance practice a small choir of 16 to 20 singers was considered the ideal. However, in the 1980s the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin suggested that Bach himself used to perform his sacred works with only a group of four soloists, in some cases with four additional ripienists. This performance practice, commonly known as 'one voice per part', has since been embraced by a number of interpreters, whereas other representatives of historical performance practice continue to perform the cantatas and oratorios with a small choir. However, some of them acknowledge that in Bach's time 'soloists' and 'choir' were not formally separated. In their performances the soloists are part of the choir and participate in the tutti. Ralf Otto uses a choir of 34 singers; the soloists don't take part in the tutti, but the minor roles (ancilla, servus) are performed by members of the choir.

A choir of this size is definitely not in line with what we know about 'choirs' in Bach's time. However, musically it has no negative effect on the performance of the tutti sections at all. In fact, these are the best parts of this performance. The Bachchor Mainz is a fine ensemble: it shows great flexibility in those turbae which are performed at a high speed, and produces a surprisingly transparent sound, also thanks to the good acoustic of the Christuskirche in Mainz. Overall the turbae are just excellent: they are among the most dramatic parts of the St John Passion and that comes off very well. The chorales are also nicely sung, with much attention to the text. However, there is a little too much legato singing here and some chorales are too slow, for instance 'Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn'. The first half of the first line in 'O große Lieb' is sung extremely slowly, and I find that rather artificial.

The opening chorus receives one of the best performances I have heard in recent years. It has just about the right tempo, the rhythmic pulse is excellent and goes along with a marked differentiation between good and bad notes. The same qualities manifest themselves in the closing chorus. The chorale 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' is sung in such a way that it makes a lasting impression.

Unfortunately this recording also has some features which are less convincing. One of them I find even pretty annoying: in some chorales the closing chord is held unnaturally long, and this also happens in many of the sequences of recitatives. I really can't think of any justification of it, and it is applied so frequently that it becomes stereotypical.

Georg Poplutz is a good Evangelist, who does communicate the text convincingly, but the recitatives are rhythmically too rigid, and the tempi are mostly a bit too slow. He is not a real storyteller; his account of this part is too static. Yorck Felix Speer gives just enough weight to the part of Jesus. The role of Pilate is given the appropriate interpretation by Christian Wagner.

The arias are a mixed baggage. Julia Kleiter has the perfect voice for this kind of music, and sings her arias pretty well, but unfortunately her performances are damaged by her vibrato, although it is mostly not very wide and therefore not too disturbing. That is different with Gerhild Romberger; 'Es ist vollbracht' is especially disappointing in this regard. The second section is too restrained, also on the part of the ensemble. In 'Von den Stricken' the balance between her and the orchestra is not ideal, also because of the rather dark sound of her voice. I would have preferred a male alto here. Daniel Sans has a pleasant voice, but I find his performances of the tenor arias a bit disappointing. 'Erwäge' is a little short on expression and although his clear articulation is praiseworthy, he goes too far here as sometimes his singing is almost staccato and the dynamic differentiation is over the top. I like Matthias Winckhler's voice; 'Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen' is particularly well done. However, the emotion in the closing lines of 'Mein teurer Heiland' is a bit underexposed.

As an appendix the second disc offers the additions and replacements from the 1725 version. The chorale 'O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß' - which was later to close the first part of the St Matthew Passion - replaces the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher'. Then follow three arias. The first is 'Himmel, reiße, Welt, erbebe', scored for bass, with a chorale for soprano (here sung by the sopranos from the choir) 'Jesu, deine Passion'. In the 1725 version it follows the chorale 'Wer hat dich so geschlagen'. The next two arias are for tenor. 'Zerschmettert mich' replaces the aria 'Ach, mein Sinn' from the 1724/1749 versions, whereas 'Ach, windet euch nicht so' replaces the bass arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' and the tenor aria 'Erwäge' from the other versions. The closing chorale 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' is replaced in the 1725 by the chorale 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes', which Bach took from this cantata BWV 23 (Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn). The choral parts are beautifully sung; again we can admire here the qualities of the Bachchor Mainz. Matthias Winkhler delivers an expressive performance of the bass aria. I would have preferred the chorale being sung by a single voice rather than a group of sopranos, but Ralph Otto manages to keep a good balance. The first tenor aria, sung by Daniel Sans, is again a bit of a shouting party, but the second is nicely done. The addition of the parts from 1725 is a nice bonus, but it is a bit disappointing that they are all at the end of disc two. Technically it must have been possible to divide them over the two discs in such a way that the listener could have programmed the tracks in the order of the 1725 version.

I wrote that the arias are a mixed baggage. That also goes for this recording as a whole. There is certainly much to enjoy, especially the singing of the choir. The orchestra is also first class; the obbligato parts come off very well. It is just a shame that there are also considerable weaknesses, which prevents me from ranking this interpretation among the best.

Johan van Veen



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