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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St John Passion
Nicholas Phan (tenor)
Jesse Blumberg, Jeffrey Strauss (baritones)
Amanda Forsythe (sop)
Terry Wey (countertenor)
Christian Immler (baritone)
Apollo’s Fire/Jeannette Sorrell
rec. Marcy 7-9 2016, St Paul’s Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
AVIE AV2369 [33:08 + 74:34]

Ditte Andersen, Lenneke Ruiten (sops)
Delphine Galou, David Hansen (altos)
Lothar Odinius, Colin Balzer, Valerio Contaldo (tenors)
Christian Immler, Yorck Felix Speer (basses)
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
rec. 14-19 April 2014, Chapelle de la Trinité, Lyon, France
ERATO 9029585405 [39:34 + 71:08]

Sophie Bevan (sop)
Robin Blaze (countertenor)
Benjamin Hulett, Robert Murray (tenor)
Andrew Ashwin (baritone)
Neal Davies, Ashley Riches (bass-baritones)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Bach Camerata/David Temple
rec. Church of St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 1-3 September 2016
Version sung in English
CHANDOS CHSA5183(2) SACD [34:33 + 75:44]

I’ve been lucky enough to hear four new St John Passions this year, which has only made me appreciate Bach’s masterpiece even more. The first one, from King’s College Cambridge, arrived before Easter and you can see my review here. These, the other three, came afterwards, but it’s definitely a case of better late than never, because they’re all good for different reasons, and I’d be happy to have any of them in my collection.

Let’s start with Apollo’s Fire, “the USA’s hottest baroque band” according to Classical Music magazine. They are totally at one with the concept of the John Passion as a drama; so much so, in fact, that these recordings come from a series of dramatic productions of the work, mounted in Cleveland and New York City in March 2016. You can see video highlights of the project here. That sense of drama is right there from the outset, with bristling tension in the orchestral passage that leads into the opening chorus. The strings seem to swirl around the narrative, and the opening cries of “Herr!” sound heartfelt and intense, but also carefully shaded. There is acting in the singing, too, with a sense of pleading and entreaty that is very convincing.  The acoustic really helps, too, with the different layers of the chorus able to come to life and be heard with great air and life, something no doubt helped by the unorthodox layout of the performance space. They also sing the chorales with convincing devotional intensity, and I found, for example, the unaccompanied second verse of ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ very affecting. They are impressively agile in the turba choruses too, with the lines biting incisively back and forth.

Nicholas Phan makes a very expressive Evangelist (listen to the huge length of time he takes to describe Peter’s “weinete bitterlich”) and he also sings the arias very convincingly, scourging effectively through ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. Terry Wey is a solid alto, but Amanda Fosythe is special, singing like a bright light in a dark universe for both ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ and, even more so, in ‘Zerfließe mein Herze’. Jesse Blumberg is a very compelling Christ, bringing every phrase to life with a musical actor’s skill. Christian Immler, of whom more later, also makes a very good bass soloist, and I loved the sensitive interplay of his voice with the choir during Mein teurer Heiland.

The orchestra play beautifully, too. I loved the oboes that danced around the vocal line of ‘Von den Stricken’, and the transverse flutes in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’. The strings are very impressive throughout, both in the gentle way they buoy up the tenor in ‘Erwäge’ and in their agile busyness of ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’. Jeannette Sorrell, the presiding genius behind the ensemble and the project, has a good grasp of the piece’s structure and shapes it well. The final chorus, in particular, is paced beautifully, the tempo chosen to encompass both forward movement and the space for meditation. Some will find the use of the orchestral crescendo in the final chorale controversial, but I really liked it because it accentuated the drama as well as the beauty and there is a hint that sense of emerging from the Passion to engage with the world.

Very good, then; but Marc Minkowski is even better. He has pedigree in Bach (he played the bassoon in the orchestra for Herreweghe’s first recording), but he writes in the booklet notes that he was slow to record Bach’s music. If he was saving himself until he was ready, however, then the wait has been worthwhile because the results are cracking.

His approach involves a very intimate choral sound, not quite one-to-a-part, but nearly; and he explains his performance choices in a very useful interview that is quoted in the booklet. Don't think for an instant, however, that his intimate approach leads to a light touch; far from it. Minkowski’s approach positively crackles with drama and excitement. In fact, your scalp will prickle right from the very first bars because the opening orchestral introduction feels like a wild beast pawing the ground, waiting to spring into the opening chorus. Where I'm nervous about one-to-a-part, it's normally because the balance is wrong and the singers can be overwhelmed, but that problem is overcome triumphantly here because, be it through careful engineering or some other musical sorcery, the sound of the singers feels both blended with and distinct from the sound of the orchestral musicians.  It's almost as though they are part of the orchestra rather than a distinct music-making body, and the effect is really rather wonderful.

Minkowski’s approach repeatedly throws up exciting avenues for drama, too. Listen, for example, to the way the pace quickens and tightens as the opening recitative gives way to the crowd’s cries of “Jesum von Nazareth,” and the crowd narratives are all thrillingly vivid, the singers outdoing themselves at every turn. The moment where the soldiers cast lots for the garment, to give one example, is dazzling. Likewise, the chorales are all very expressive, but it's to Minkowski’s credit that his approach to them is sensitively varied and never becomes workmanlike.

If the singers sound great coming together as a chorus, then they are also excellent as soloists. Lothar Odinius is a very effective Evangelist, and he sings ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with wounded humanity. Christian Immler is a very good Christ, as he was for Apollo’s Fire, but is, if anything, even finer in his arias. Ditte Andersen is lovely, if a little brittle, in ‘Ich folge dir’. Lenneke Ruiten sings ‘Zerfließe mein Herze’ with translucent beauty, while Delphine Galou sings ‘Es ist vollbracht’ with limpid loveliness but also great agility in the faster section. David Hansens is bewitching (and, to my ears, deceptively androgynous) in ‘Von den Stricken’. Yorck Felix Speer is a thrilling Pilate, but is also beautifully communicative in ‘Betrachte, meine Seele’. Colin Balzer floats ‘Erwäge’ with great delicacy.

Les Musiciens du Louvre play on period instruments, but there is a richness (“juiciness”, I want to say!) to their playing that is remarkably rewarding and very different to the others I've heard this year. That's definitely helped by Minkowski's decision to use in the ensemble both a harpsichord and a contrabassoon, whose added depth makes a big difference throughout. I'm sure there is also a benefit in the space of the resonant acoustic of the Lyon Chapelle de la Trinité in which the set was recorded. More important than anything, though, is the energy and insight they bring, be that in the gentle strings that accompany ‘Betrachte, meine Seele’, or the thrilling way the flutes flicker around the top of the turba choruses.

Minkowski performs the work’s original 1724 version but, as a bonus, he also gives us two arias that Bach added for the 1725 version. ‘Himmel reiße’ is rather fussily sung by Christian Immler, but ‘Zerschmettert mich’ sounds positively heroic sung by substitute tenor Valerio Contaldo (and the orchestra have a great time there too).

So Minkowski shows that you need no staging to produce fantastic drama, and the quality of his performance is a notch above Sorrell’s for excitement and clean-ness. However, my biggest and most pleasant surprise came from the recording from the Crouch End Festival Chorus, whose USP is that it is sung in English.

I am as sceptical as the next man about performing works in translation, but if any work could justify it then it’s this one. After all, it was meant to be performed in church, and Bach the Lutheran would have wanted it to have been understood by all of the congregation so as to deepen their religious understanding and enrich the quality of their devotion. Blow me if I didn’t find both of those things happening as I listened!

Where it works, it works because Neil Jenkins’ translation is exceptionally sympathetic. Take the opening chorus, for example: Jenkins translates “Herr, unser Herrscher” as “Hail, Lord and Master.”  That's wonderful, because it captures perfectly the spirit (if not quite the letter) of the German, while keeping the consonance of the vowels extremely well. Another capital example comes in the work’s most famous aria: “Behold him, see his body bruised and bleeding” is a surprisingly effective translation of “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücke,” and has the advantage of making the convoluted German metaphor comprehensible at last. True: “Show by thy cross and Passion” doesn't have the same punch as “Zeig uns durch deine Passion”, and “Ah, my Soul” doesn't have the visceral thrust of “Ach, mein Sinn,” but I was prepared to forgive these for the sake of the overall gains of clarity.

The real gains are through the chorales and, especially, the narrative. The story zips past when it's in your own language, helping me to remember, for the first time in years, the huge excitement of discovering the work for the first time. Listening to the brilliantly communicative Evangelist of Robert Murray brings a special pleasure of its own, and the crowd scenes of the Second Part are fantastically vivid.

The chorales, on the other hand, also feel like the hymns that they are intended to be, and this brings me to the singing of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Whether their sound is for you will depend partly on your expectations, but primarily on whether you buy into their approach. They are a chorus of more than a hundred amateurs, so they sound a universe away from, say Apollo’s Fire, and that means that their sound isn't nearly as lithe or as transparent as you'd get from a smaller professional chorus. But that doesn't necessarily mean they deliver a worse experience. In fact, the levels of drama and incisiveness that they bring to the turba choruses are often extraordinary, and must have required a great deal of rehearsal time. And, yes, the chorales can sound rather cloudy in places, but this should only remind you that Bach originally intended them to be sung by the people in the congregation and, for me, that contributed more to sense of immediacy and humanity.

The soloists, however, are professionals, and they do a very good job. Robert Murray is only the most obviously excellent of them.  Next to him, Ashley Riches makes an uncommonly human, vulnerable Jesus, and Andrew Ashwin’s Pilate sounds similarly sympathetic, not to mention conflicted.  Sophie Bevan sounds lovely in the soprano solos, and in her second aria (“O heart, melt in weeping”) sounds more secure and comfortable than she did in the King’s recording. It's great hearing Neal Davies in the arias, and it's fascinating contrasting his reflective approach to the arias with his more dramatic approach to the part of Christ in the King’s recording.  Robin Blaze sounds a little cloudy in his first aria, but is marvellously alive in his second.  Benjamin Hulett is beautifully mellifluous.

The playing of the Bach Camerata, on period instruments, is unimpeachable. They create dramatic tension in the opening chorus through playing of marvellous precision, and the instrumental obligatti are top notch throughout, with a particularly affecting solo in “It is fulfilled” (“Es ist vollbracht”). The conducting of David Temple, the chorus’ founder, is of a standard that could happily hold its own in the company of any of the conductors mentioned elsewhere in this review, and among many others more famous.

The obvious competition for this will come from the English Chamber Orchestra’s 1971 recording conducted by Benjamin Britten, which is in its own way wonderful, but this one feels more immediate and more involving because of the excellent sound, the clarity of the singing and the consistent beauty of the textures. Only you will know whether you're in the market for this one, but I found it very compelling and, indeed, a pleasant surprise!

So as the Easter season draws to a close, I can count myself blessed to have heard all of these performances. The only one I would consciously cast aside is the one from King’s, for reasons I have expressed elsewhere, but I’d be delighted to live with any of these. If forced to pick, I’d go for Minkowski because I found his overall vision so compellingly convincing, but I’m very pleased that his recording will live on my shelf next to David Temple’s.

All three have excellent booklet notes, by the way, including texts and (where appropriate) translations. Furthermore, all three manage to fit the whole of Part One onto the first disc and the whole of Part Two onto the second.

Simon Thompson


 

 




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