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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
St John Passion (BWV 245)
Jan Kobow (tenor) - Evangelist, Stephan MacLeod (bass) - Jesus
Les Voix Baroques, Arion Orchestre Baroque/Alexander Weimann
rec. November 2010, Grand Séminaire, Montreal, Canada. DDD
ATMA ACD2 2611 [31:54 + 74:40]

Bach's St John Passion is available in many recordings. The differences regard the interpretation, but also the version which is used. Scholars distinguish four versions. The first dates from 1724 which can be reconstructed with the help of the material from the version of 1749. It is this version which is mostly used, and that is also the case here.
The tutti - the opening and closing choruses, the turbae and the chorales - are performed with three voices per part. For reasons which I don't understand the B section of the closing chorus 'Ruht wohl' is sung by four solo voices. The solo parts are sung by members of the ensemble, with the exception of the parts of the Evangelist and Jesus.
The tutti sections are the best parts of this recording. The turbae are particularly impressive and the excitement of the crowds comes across very well. These choruses also contribute to the dramatic character of this performance. That is also due to the fact that there are very few breathing spaces between the recitatives, choruses and arias. I found the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher' a little disappointing. Its depth fails to come across mainly because of the swift tempo. That is especially regrettable as it sets the tone for the whole work, underlining the role of Jesus as the real director of the story as it unfolds.
The chorales are often the weak spots in performances of German sacred music. Here they are surprisingly good: much attention is paid to the text, the stressed syllables are clearly marked and the articulation is excellent. Undoubtedly these features are the result of Alexander Weimann being of German birth and having a thorough understanding of the German language and culture of Bach's time. He is probably also responsible for the pronunciation of the soloists. That is mostly remarkably good, although in some cases it is notable that the singers are not native German speakers.
The exception is Jan Kobow, a seasoned interpreter of the role of the Evangelist in Bach's Passions. He delivers an engaging account of this part here, in a truly speech-like manner. His interpretation is not devoid of emotion, but never goes overboard. The tempo of the recitatives in the first part is a little too slow; that obviously is the choice of the performance's director, though. Stephan MacLeod is of Swiss birth, and I don't know if German is his first language. However, his pronunciation is flawless, and his performance of the role of Jesus has just enough authority. I don't find his voice particularly attractive, but that is a matter of taste. I regret the slight tremolo which often mars his singing, and does so here too. The arioso 'Betrachte meine Seel' is beautifully sung, though.
In comparison to the generally impressive performances of the tutti sections the arias and ariosos are a mixed package. The best of the soloists is Shannon Mercer who shines in 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls'. The articulation is perfect and the dynamic shading effective. Agnes Zsigovics has a very nice voice, and she sings 'Zerfließe, mein Herze' very well. However, she shows little sensitivity to the text and the performance is too straightforward. That also goes for 'Von den Stricken' in which Matthew White is a bit too loud and falls short on expression. Jeremy Budd does considerably better in the short aria 'Ach, mein Sinn'. Lawrence Wiliford delivers a convincing interpretation of the other tenor aria, 'Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken'. The dynamic shading on the long notes is especially good.
'Es ist vollbracht' is sung by Meg Bragle, who has a rather dark and strong voice; she sings with a good amont of expression. Unfortunately the performance is harmed by an incessant vibrato. It is not very wide and obtrusive, but clearly noticeable and definitely not required here. There is a strong contrast between the A and B section which fits in the overall dramatic character of this performance. I don't quite understand, though, why the repetition of the text of the A section, "Es ist vollbracht", is sung piano.
The role of Pilate is taken by Nathaniel Watson who is not entirely convincing. I find his singing too pathetic and not very speech-like. That also damages the performance of the aria 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' in which the balance with the choir is not ideal. The same goes for 'Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen'. Joshua Hopkins, who gives a rather good account of the role of Peter, is miscast here. He shows a complete lack of sensivity to the text and his voice is rather harsh and loud. I sorely missed the tenderness and warmth this magnificent and moving aria requires.
The pros and cons of this recording keep each other in balance. The main virtues are the performances of the tutti sections, in particular the turbae. The dramatic character of this Passion comes off very well. However, despite some good performances, the weaknesses in the solo parts prevent this recording from being unequivocally recommendable. Even so, it is definitely a performance which belongs in the better than average category. As such it should be considered by those who look for a recording of Bach's St John Passion.
Johan van Veen