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J. S. BACH St John Passion The Scholars Baroque Ensemble: artistic coordinator David van Asch, Organ: Bernhardt Junghänel   Naxos 8.550664-5
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It has become the practice of the last 40 years to perform Bach's choral works with ever more slender forces, to the extent that one wonders just how much further can this process go? Certainly no-one could recommend a return to the heavy ponderous performances with great bellowing choruses and the best part of a full symphony orchestra - such as those conducted by Vaughan Williams in the 1950's and before.

At the other extreme, it is legitimate to ask if reduction to chamber music does not rob the works of their weight and grandeur? The numbers for this recording of the St John Passion by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble must surely be the irreducible minimum; just 23 performers fill the roles of soloists, chorus and orchestra. In reality they are a string octet (5+1+1+1) with vocal and woodwind soloists - surely inadequate for a large concert hall or cathedral performance. And yet, almost miraculously, this recording works to brilliant effect - especially bearing in mind that a CD is primarily intended to be heard not in a big space but in listeners' homes. There are considerations of quality as well as quantity and these are much in evidence here: virtuosity of individual soloists, sustained sonorities, clarity of music texture and diction, judicious balance both within and between the instrumental and vocal groupings, and, supremely, a sensitivity to the work's spiritual and dramatic properties.

Another important commendation is the quality of phrasing and tempi which perfectly match the innate nature of the music. With one unfortunate exception, the rushed tempi and excessive mannerisms which all too often characterise modern "authentic" baroque performance are mercifully absent.

The woodwind obbligati in the Part 1 arias and towards the end of Part 2 are of breathtaking beauty. The woodwind are silent for the profoundly anguished sections of Part 2 and here the string playing (including viole d'amore, viola da gamba and lute) convey the deep poignancy of the scourging and crucifixion.

Robin Doveton is a fine dramatic evangelist and the bass and counter-tenor arias of Adrian Peacock and Angus Davidson have lyric mellow qualities. The one exception to this otherwise uniformly fine performance is the bass aria with chorus Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen, where the "Eilt" (hurry, rush) is overdone, becoming just a bit too sprightly and leggerio for the circumstances of Golgotha.

This recording repays repeated playing; the listener is drawn more and more into the spiritual depths of the Passion with each repetition. They are ideal discs for quiet meditative contemplation.


Humphrey Smith


Humphrey Smith

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