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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 [107:08]
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor – Evangelist); Krešimir Stražanac (bass – Jesus); Dorothee Mields (soprano); Damien Guillon (countertenor); Robin Tritschler (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass arias & Pilate); Philipp Kaven (bass - Petrus); Stephan Gähler (tenor – Servus); Magdalena Prodkościelna (soprano – Ancilla).
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 2018, deSingel, Antwerp, Belgium
German text, English, Flemish & French translations included
PHI LPH031 [33:29 + 73:39]

I think I’m right in saying that Philippe Herreweghe has made two earlier recordings of the St John Passion with Collegium Vocale Gent. Both versions were issued by Harmonia Mundi, the first with Howard Crook as his Evangelist and the second with Mark Padmore. I greatly admire Herreweghe as a Bach interpreter so I’m surprised and a little disappointed with myself that I’ve not heard either, though I do have both of his recordings (1984 and 1988) of the St Matthew Passion in my collection. I was delighted, therefore, to be able finally, if belatedly, to hear Herreweghe in this work when this new release arrived. Though not badged as such, I suspect the release, on his own label, has been issued to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Collegium Vocale Gent in 1970. Even though this fine ensemble has been around for as long as I’ve been listening seriously to Bach, it still comes as something of a shock to realise that they go back five decades.

For this performance Herreweghe deploys a small choir of sixteen singers, four to a part, which includes all the soloists except Maximilian Schmitt and Krešimir Stražanac. The orchestra numbers just 17 players, including the continuo. This use of small forces produces a flexible, intimate sound with everything in perfect balance. Great clarity of texture is a constant feature. All the obbligato parts are expertly played and I must single out for special mention the beguiling flutes in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’, the agile oboes in ‘Von den Stricken’ and, above all, the poised, melancholy gamba in ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ If those are the highlights then I must hasten to add that the instrumental contributions throughout are very fine indeed.

Equally distinguished is the choral singing. The chorales are stylishly sung – all are intelligently paced by Herreweghe, whose treatment of each of these meditations seems entirely apt to me. Though the chorus may be small in numbers they have sufficient weight of tone to deliver the magnificent opening chorus with just the right degree of tension, as well as plenty of light and shade. The turba choruses of Part II are all splendidly done. For instance, the chromatic lines in ‘Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter’ cut through grippingly; here, it’s a decided advantage, I’m sure, that three of the four altos are male singers. A little later on, there’s nimble singing to admire in ‘Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig’ but then there’s real strength in their very next intervention, ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige!’. At ‘Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!’ the choral lines are strongly projected, while ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ features really deft singing; here, the choir achieves terrific precision and clarity at a swift tempo.

With chorus work of this calibre, it’s no surprise that the scene where Christ is before Pilate is very well done indeed. Herreweghe paces the whole section very adroitly and with a keen sense of dramatic tension. Peter Kooij is an excellent Pilate, while the narrative is articulated vividly by Maximilian Schmitt. In fact. Schmitt is a notable Evangelist throughout. Right from the start, he draws the listener into the narrative. He paces the recitatives very well indeed and uses a wide range of expression and vocal colours to bring the story to life. I was both impressed and convinced. The Croatian singer, Krešimir Stražanac is described as a bass in the documentation but I noticed that in his biography he is described as a bass-baritone. I think the latter is more accurate because here he has no trouble with ether the highest or lowest-lying passages. He has quite a full voice but he uses it with perceptive discretion and he sings the role of Christus well.

The arias are all in very safe hands. Damien Guillon makes a fine early impression in ‘Von den Stricken’ while his delivery of ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ is tender and affecting. The Irish tenor, Robin Tritschler has a couple of testing assignments. ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with its dotted rhythms is tricky to articulate but Tritschler makes a very good job of it. In Part II, when he sings ‘Erwäge’ the sound is free and open. Peter Kooij brings all his Bachian experience to bear on the bass arias. I especially enjoyed his elevated singing in the bittersweet arioso, ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’. The soprano has two wonderful arias to sing and Dorothee Mields does not disappoint. I admired her gleaming, eager tone in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’. Near the end of the work she spins the heavenly vocal line in ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’ beautifully, her singing plaintive and touching. My pleasure in this aria was enhanced by the wonderfully characterful dark sounds of the instrumental accompaniment.

As I’ve indicated already, Philippe Herreweghe is a sure and stylish guide to the St John Passion. It seems to me that his pacing is consistently ideal – not a single tempo caused my eyebrows to rise – and throughout the whole performance I sensed that it was in the hands of someone who knows his Bach inside out. The gentle, thoughtful way in which ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ is performed as the Passion draws to a close summed up for me Herreweghe’s empathy with and understanding of the work. It’s taken me longer than I would have wished to encounter him in this score but it’s been worth the wait.

Bach’s two surviving Passion settings are pinnacles of European high art. For all I love and respect the St Matthew Passion, my admiration and affection for the St John Passion is even greater, not least because its taut, urgent telling of the story itself brings us face to face – indeed, confronts us - with the drama of the Passion narrative. Here, it’s in the best possible hands; Philippe Herreweghe, his singers and instrumentalists penetrate to the heart of Bach’s masterpiece.

The recording is excellent, achieving clarity, exemplary balance and a very pleasing, natural sound. The documentation is very good indeed, including an excellent essay by Michael Maul.

By coincidence, I finished my listening work on this set on Ash Wednesday. I can think of nothing better to launch the season of Lent than the St John Passion, especially in such a stylish and compelling performance.

John Quinn

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