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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion (BWV245) (1749 version)
Werner Güra (tenor, Evangelist)
Johannes Weisser (bass arias/Christus)
Andrew Redmond (bass, Petrus)
Johannes Schendel (bass, Pilatus)
Sunhae Im (soprano arias)
Benno Schachtner (alto arias)
Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor arias)
Fabienne Weiss (soprano, Ancilla)
Minsub Hong (tenor, Servus)
RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, July 2015. DDD/DSD
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC802236/37 SACD [106:12]

Reviewed as 24-bit download from, with pdf booklet. Also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless and from dealers on 2 SACDS + DVD.

With wonderfully misconceived timing Harmonia Mundi released this recording on Good Friday. That was fine if you were streaming or downloading: I did both on the day, streaming the 16-bit from, with booklet, while downloading the 24-bit from I had expected to obtain it from Qobuz but it was not then available. My complaint is on behalf of those who ordered the discs only to have them arrive several days too late and anyone reading this review who will have waited even longer. On the other hand, I enjoyed hearing on the day what has been my favourite of the two regular Bach Passions ever since I fell in love with it on Good Friday 1958 on a broadcast in Germany where I was being trained as a ‘teamer’ by an international youth organisation.

The version comes in 24-bit sound for a reasonable $28.67, with mp3 and 16-bit at $23.90, making the version over-priced as a download at £20.81 (16-bit), with no 24-bit equivalent. Considering that the regular price for the discs is around £24, with special offers at present reducing the set to around £20, only the download is worth considering. Even then one misses out on the bonus DVD.

If you own or have heard René Jacobs’ earlier recording of the St Matthew Passion, you will have some idea what to expect in the St John which he has here recorded for the first time, though he has appeared as a soloist in Bach Passion arias with Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. My own reaction is similar to that expressed in Download News 2014/3 when I wrote of the St Matthew that though I preferred John Eliot Gardiner (DG) or John Butt (Linn), if this were my only Desert Island recording of this great music I wouldn’t look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.

Bach revised the St John Passion regularly between the first performance in 1724 and the final revision which he made in 1749, a year before his death. There’s a bewildering array of versions in the various recordings, some of which employ the original or a particular revision while others choose eclectically between them.

Three years ago Linn gave us John Butt’s reconstruction with his Dunedin Consort of the St John in its original liturgical context within Lutheran Vespers for the afternoon of Good Friday. For that purpose he attempted to reconstruct the text of 1739 rather than that contained in the familiar Neue Bach-Ausgabe. (Linn CKD419: Recording of the Month – reviewDownload News 2013/4.) Though I’m not a strong proponent of the one-to-a-part school of Bach singing, it works very well on the Linn recording and it’s very good to have the elements of Lutheran Vespers to take or leave.

The new recording uses the familiar text which Bach dictated to a copyist towards the end of his life but it’s possible also to download a high-res recording of the 1725 version for comparison. The main recording consists of the conventional 40 numbers, commencing with the opening Exordium, Herr, unser Herrscher, substituted for O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß, after Bach transferred that to the St Matthew Passion, and concluding with Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein.

In addition there are four items from the 1725 version to download: the opening O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß, one aria for bass and soprano and two for tenor. At the time of writing it was not apparent how to access these. If you are looking for a reconstruction of the 1724/1725 St John you need to turn to Richard Egarr with the Academy of Ancient Music on their own label (AAM002 – Download News 2014/3).

René Jacobs employs several singers to a part, thus bringing the new recording more directly into competition with the two recordings of John Eliot Gardiner, the earlier for DG (4193242 or in 9-CD set with St Matthew Passion, b-minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio, 4697692) and the more recent for his own SDG label (SDG712: Recording of the Month – review).

It’s a pretty tall ask to match or surpass those two Gardiner recordings and I can’t say that Jacobs brings it off. The 9-CD DG set is a particularly strong recommendation even if you have other recordings of some of its contents.

At the risk of sounding off-message, it’s the especially dramatic narration that may be your deciding factor concerning the Jacobs recording. Other versions may match the abrupt violence of Barrabas aber war ein Mörder but the interchanges between the characters are often fast and furious. That makes the usual pause after Pilate has asked ‘what is truth?’ more effective but it comes at a price, since the sharp-fire interchanges occasionally come at the expense of diction.

Diction is sometimes a problem, too, because of the large size of the chorus. In the opening Herr, unser Herrscher, the first syllable of unser sometimes gets lost, as if all the singers had decided to swallow it. The basic chorus consists of the four soloists and sixteen members of the RIAS Kammerchor with seventeen extras in the chorales (Zusätzliche Ripienisten zur Verstärkung der Choräle) plus some unnamed contributors from the Berlin Cathedral Choir. I’ve said that I’m not over-fussed by the question of one-to-a-part but I do think that the new recording goes a little too far in the direction of the ‘good old’ days; I’m surprised to see one dealer describe it as ‘small scale’. Gardiner (SDG) uses six sopranos and four each of altos, tenors and basses and not only achieves a cleaner sound but is able to adopt a slightly faster and more effective tempo.

Much as I love Gardiner’s two performances – it will take some effort to prize the 9-CD set out of my possession – Butt’s cleaner lines and livelier tempo in this opening chorale win my vote in the final analysis. There’s another small-scale recording – two each of sopranos, alto, tenors and basses – to which I have been listening recently and there Herr, unser Herrscher is taken even faster. On Mirare Philippe Pierlot with the Ricercar Consort dashes through in 8:13, which makes the music sound energetic but a little perfunctory. At first hearing there’s a great deal to like about this Pierlot recording: I plan to listen more thoroughly and report in Download News. (MIR136).

Having been a little cool about Jacobs’ opening of Part One, I have nothing but praise for Christus der uns selig macht, which opens Part 2 and the choir’s representation of the crowd in the ensuing interchange with Pilate. Indeed, as the performance progressed I found myself warming to it much more.

The soloists remain partly as on the earlier Jacobs recording of the St Matthew. Sunhae Im sings the soprano arias, as on the St Matthew. There’s much less chance for the soprano to shine, or otherwise, in the St John but Im does get to sing the beautiful Ich folge dir gleichfalls. She has a beautifully clear tone but sounds rather ‘small’ by comparison with Joanna Lunn, who also benefits from Gardiner’s sprightlier tempo on SDG.

Benno Schachtner is an effective alto soloist without trying to make Von den Stricken meiner Sünden too emotional. Bernarda Fink, however, Jacob’s alto in St Matthew, makes a slightly more emotive appeal as Gardiner’s alto on SDG at the expense of sounding slightly plummier; once again Gardiner’s tempo is slightly faster. In Schachtner’s Zerfließe, mein Herze there’s no lack of emotional power.

Werner Güra is a most effective Evangelist: even the critics of the earlier recording found him polished and believable. The other tenor in the arias and arioso is Sebastian Kohlepp. The aria Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken, in which the wounds left by the scourging are fancifully compared to the colours of the rainbow, is one of the few borrowings from the then hugely popular Brockes-Passion. The soloist needs to convey the word painting without overdoing it, and that Kohlepp achieves well.

Johannes Werner, intensely human as Christ in St Matthew, remains so here in the same role, apart from some of the diction problems which I have noted, and in the bass arias and arioso. He sounds lighter than most bass soloists: I’d describe him rather as a bass-baritone and, indeed, his web-page describes him as a baritone. His lighter voice works well, for me at least, in Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen except that there’s less difference in timbre between him and Kohlepp a few seconds later in the tenor arioso Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt.

The new Harmonia Mundi recording is good in both formats without being outstanding. I didn’t find the 24-bit vastly better than the 16-bit but at the time of writing the extra cost from is small enough to be worth paying. One perplexing problem: I listened first with the Sony Media Go programme which is useful for getting the track information right for transfer to the Walkman player – not that there was any sloppy editing with this recording, but it’s best to check – and there was a devastating dropout in the penultimate track. Listening again via my normal Winamp programme it wasn’t there and it’s not there on the streamed version. I have no explanation.

The booklet contains the texts of the additional 1725 tracks, which I look forward to being able to obtain. I’m not at all clear why they could not have been appended to the SACDs and the ordinary download: there would have been plenty of room. The booklet also contains helpful notes if you are having problems keeping up with the changes which Bach made between 1724 and 1749.

Of making many recordings of the Bach Passions there seems to be no end. Fans of René Jacobs will certainly enjoy this one of the St John at least as much as I did. There’s far less to cause potential controversy than is sometimes the case with his opera recordings. In the final analysis, however, my vote still goes to John Eliot Gardiner (DG or SDG) and among one-to-a-part performances to John Butt (Linn), who not only persuades me that such an approach can work very well but also places the work in its liturgical context.

Brian Wilson

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