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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion BWV 245
Martin Petzold – Evangelist (tenor)
Patrick Grahl (tenor in the arias)
Lars Conrad – Pilatus (bass in the arias)
Egbert Junghanns – Jesus (bass)
Marie Henriette Reinhold (alto)
Viktoria Wilson (soprano)
Fabian Enders (chorus master)
Sächsischer Kammerchor & Mitteldeutsche Virtuosen/Peter Schreier
rec. live, 24 February 2018, Thomaskirche Leipzig
RONDEAU ROP6162/63 [2 CDs: 115.52]

Peter Schreier has appeared on recordings of Bach’s St John Passion at least three times before. On RCA, in 1976, he sang the Evangelist and the tenor arias, alongside the Leipzig Thomaskirche Choir and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He did the same for Helmut Rilling on Sony in 1984. For Philips, in February 1988, he again sang the Evangelist and the tenor arias but also directed the performance. Here thirty years to the month after that, he is conducting the work in Bach’s own Leipzig church (or one of them). So he has been among Europe’s leading Evangelists but has also been conducting this work for many years both before and since he retired from singing. This was not a late addition to his musical art – he trained as a conductor as well as a singer – and lived with the vocal works of Bach since he was a boy chorister in Dresden. So, as you might imagine, there is a feeling of authority throughout this performance.

For the opening chorus – one of the greatest movements in all Bach – he favours a swifter tempo these days than he did in 1988, taking just 8:08 against the earlier 9:48. Of those modern versions I know, only Monica Huggett’s (7:43) and Richard Eggar’s (7:09) break that 8 minute barrier. Schreier’s account is splendid; urgent and compelling, with the repeated clashes of flutes and oboes well brought out, and the semiquaver string ostinato driving us on to the momentous events the Passion will unfold. The chamber choir (Sächsischer Kammerchor) is fine too, rhythmic, well-balanced and accurate. In fact they sing very well throughout, devotional in the chorales and passionately involved in the dramatic turba moments. Their singing of the wonderful last chorus Ruht wohl (Be at peace) is as consoling as it must be.

The soloists vary however. Both the women are good. Alto Marie Henriette Reinhold is in fact very good, a true alto timbre (not a mezzo with some low notes), firm and rich in the opening aria, and moving in the great Es ist vollbracht! (It is fulfilled). Viktoria Wilson’s bright pure soprano mostly graces her music, touching in her first aria, if a bit more taxed and occasionally shrill in the Passion’s final aria on the death of Jesus Zerfliesse mein Herze. The Pilatus, Lars Conrad, also sings the bass arias and is excellent in both, especially when combining with the choir in Mein teurer Heiland (My precious Saviour). The bass, Egbert Junghanns, sings Jesus with gravitas, but sounds stretched by some moments in his longer contributions. The tenor arias from Patrick Grahl are fluently and attractively sung, and he copes well with the leaps in Ach mein Sinn (Ah my mind).

The Evangelist, Martin Petzold, has an agreeable enough tenor, of the type we expect for the part, and has excellent diction (essential since he is effectively narrating the Passion story). But he struggles at a couple of points, such as the difficult arioso when he describes the crowing of the cock and Peter’s bitter weeping – Bach’s long melismatic phrases need better breath control here, though the result is not ineffective in suggesting a broken spirit. More worrying is the moment in Part 2 at 18c, where Petzold barks his lines about Barrabas being a murderer rather too histrionically, as if an enraged participant rather than a narrator.

The sound is good, the reverberation of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche adding bloom but never muddying the texture. The many instrumental obbligati are not only excellently played but vividly captured, as are the voices. It all feels live too but is rather more than a souvenir for those who have heard Bach sung in this church. It is an excellent St John Passion such as would have satisfied most of us if we had been there. There is a nice booklet with appropriate colour artwork from Hieronymous Bosch and others. It is not a sole library choice maybe, since the occasional solo vocal frailties of a live performance might not bear repeated listening, and there are so many fine studio versions. Schreier’s direction is splendid but so too was it in 1988 and that also has his Evangelist, a strong solo team and three extra arias from the 1725 version (the Philips recording was reissued by Newton). But I will enjoy the present recording also for its dedication, fine choral singing and the sense of a special occasion led in the perfect setting by a great Bachian.

Roy Westbrook



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