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Hyperion Records

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Nude Woman Praying by Jan Hardisty (b1948)
Private Collection / © Special Photographers Archive / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67901/2
Recording details: April 2012
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: March 2013
Total duration: 117 minutes 44 seconds

'Stephen Layton's outstanding new St John is about as state-of-the-art a Bach Passion recording as you'll hear … Ian Bostridge is the master story-teller who surveys all about him, impeccably delivering every nuance of every word … alongside the top-class and pliable choral singing of Polyphony comes the roll call of impressive soloists … the noble Christ of Neal Davies and the deeply felt singing of Roderick Williams complement the kaleidoscope of vocal expression here with their capacity for reflective commentary, as does Iestyn Davies in a treasurable 'Es ist vollbracht'' (Gramophone)

'There's no doubting the choir's passion and poise, whether as a baying mob … or in the expressively balanced unaccompanied chorale verses … Layton's pacing is compelling … it's crowned by Iestyn Davies's sublime account of 'Es ist vollbracht', his pure alto wrapped around the obbligato pathos of Richard Tunnicliffe's viola da gamba. Both Carolyn Sampson's arias are priceless' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Stephen Layton, top soloists, the expert choir of Polyphony and the incomparable Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform the St John Passion annually at St John's Smith Square … concentrate … on the purity of sound, the emotionally expressive yet restrained performance by all and the impeccable attention to text of the soloists. Ian Bostridge lives every word of the narration but never over dramatises. Countertenor Iestyn Davies's almost disembodied account of 'Es ist vollbracht!' ('It is finished!') is unforgettable' (The Observer)

'This St John Passion brings to the fore the traits of style and taste that are distinguished hallmarks of Layton and the forces he gathers around him … Ian Bostridge is the tenor Evangelist, eloquent, pure of tone, fluent and strong in communicating the import of the German narrative. Neal Davies is a Christus of tender authority. The choir sings with a well-rounded sound, firm accents and with diction that brings the text crisply to life: the spitting out of the word nicht in the passage where the crowd asserts that it has delivered Jesus up to Pilate because he is a malefactor is just one example of how attentive this performance is to the colouring of words. It has been said that the St John Passion has affinities with Baroque opera in its almost theatrical evocation of time and place. Layton … harnesses the dramatic thrust of the Passion while also conveying its sacred, spiritual substance' (The Daily Telegraph)

'A very welcome new recording … Stephen Layton presents an intelligently perceptive performance, beautifully sung by a fine team of soloists … this recorded version comes finely honed, a deep familiarity with the score not causing any hint of routine but showing itself in an easy fluency as it passes from devotional strength though the depths of pathos and anguish to high drama, the immediate aftermath of the Crucifixion creating a vividly powerful climax … Ian Bostridge brings to the role of Evangelist great authority and potent power … profoundly impressive, with his vocal dexterity, marvellous purity of tone and astonishing sense of involvement achieved through placing great emphasis on the delivery of the text. In Neal Davies we have a Christus who exudes anguish but also considerable poise … Layton's reading gets closer to the heart of the passion story than most and as such, is a recording that ranks very highly indeed. The recorded sound is, as we would expect, superb' (International Record Review)

'Stephen Layton directs this intense, dramatic reading with intelligence and integrity, ably assisted by an excellent team of soloists. Ian Bostridge is a superly articulate, agile and expressive Evangelist' (Early Music Today)

'There have been many fine recordings of this work … but this is the equal of anything I have heard. Lead by tenor Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist, and Neal Davies as Christ, this is a rivetingly taut and dramatic performance, beautifully recorded' (Dominion Post, New Zealand)

St John Passion, BWV245
first performed at St Nicholas, Leipzig, on Good Friday 1724; successively revised up to 1749
author of text
mainly derived from John

Other recordings available for download
Dunedin Consort, John Butt (conductor)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The St John Passion was heard for the first time at Good Friday Vespers of 1724 in Nicholas’s Church in Leipzig. With this performance, which took place towards the end of his first year as Kantor of St Thomas’s, Bach began the process of consolidating over the next twenty-seven years a still recent tradition in Leipzig which his predecessor in the post, Johann Kuhnau, had inaugurated with a St Mark Passion in 1721. The work’s incorporation into the liturgy of the Vesper service on Good Friday afternoon made it necessary to split it in two, as was subsequently to be the case in in all the Passions Bach gave in Leipzig: the first and shorter part was heard before the hour-long sermon, the second after it.

It is possible to distinguish five versions of the St John Passion, which are connected respectively with the performances in the years 1724, 1725, 1728, c1739, and 1749. All of them display significant modifications in detail, but also in the overall formal scheme of the work, the character of which is determined by the large-scale framing movements at the beginning and end. The furthest removed from the original design is the first revision. The opening and closing movements ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ and ‘Ruht wohl’, along with the final chorale ‘Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein’, were replaced in 1725 by new movements. In both cases the substitutes were extended chorale settings: ‘O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß’ (transferred to the St Matthew Passion in 1736) and ‘Christe, du Lamm Gottes’ (taken from the Cantata BWV23 for Bach’s examination for the post of Kantor in 1723). In addition to this, Bach replaced a number of arias. Two factors made him decide on so fundamental a transformation just a year after the premiere. In the first place, there was evidently no time to compose a new Passion; and secondly, he was clearly intent on bringing the 1724 Passion into line with the ongoing annual cycle (Jahrgang) of chorale cantatas of 1724–5. This aim was easy to achieve with the big framing choruses based on chorale themes and the inserted aria ‘Himmel, reiße, Welt, erbebe’ featuring the chorale ‘Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod’.

The third version (1728) restored the original opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ and the closing chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ to their initial function, but dispensed with the final chorale. It is impossible today to reconstruct most of the major changes in this version, but we know they included the deletion of those sections from Matthew’s Gospel (such as the passage ‘Und der Vorhang im Tempel zerriss’) which Bach had taken over into the St John Passion for dramatic reasons. Given that a St Matthew Passion had come to join the St John in 1727, a clear segregation of the two Gospels was now desirable. The fourth version, probably dating from 1739, marked a return to the first version, but combined with a thoroughgoing musical revision. Bach recorded this in a newly copied score, which however breaks off at movement 12. The fragmentary revised score constitutes an extensive stylistic overhaul with painstaking improvements to the part-writing and a partial restructuring of the instrumentation; particular attention was paid to the word-setting in the recitatives and the continuo accompaniment.

With this fair copy of around 1739 Bach was obviously aiming to produce a final version of his St John Passion. The revision he began here was connected with the thorough reworking of a whole series of large choral works, including not only the St Matthew Passion but also the Magnificat, the Easter and Ascension oratorios and the lost St Mark Passion. Why his work on the St John Passion remained in a fragmentary state is unclear. Even the revival of 1749 apparently provided no stimulus to complete what he had begun. The revision of 1739 was disregarded, and during the 1740s Bach repeatedly performed Passion music by other masters (including Passion oratorios by Handel, Keiser and Graun) while seemingly resigned to allowing his own work to lie unfinished. Perhaps a row with the Leipzig authorities over the Passion performance of 1739 had taken its toll. For that incident had provoked an angry reaction from Bach, who is reported as saying that ‘he did not care, for he got nothing out of [the annual Passion music] anyway, and it was only a burden’.

All the same, Bach resolved to give his St John Passion again in 1749: this was to be the last Passion he directed. To this end he made further interventions in the 1724 form of the work, modifying and modernizing some of the poetic texts. Thus, for example, the line ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ (‘I too follow thee with joyful steps’) was rephrased to read ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls, mein Heiland, mit Freuden’ (‘I too follow thee, my Saviour, with joy’). Above all, however, he augmented the performing forces. For instance, a bassono grosso (contrabassoon) was expressly required in order to give the orchestra a sonorous foundation, and the existence of five continuo parts indicates that there was an especially rich array of bass and keyboard instruments.

In spite of its chequered history, the St John Passion displays in all its numbers a high degree of musical elaboration coupled with a special originality of content which is due above all to the theological idiosyncrasy of John’s Gospel in relation to the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The former lays particular emphasis on the sovereignty of Jesus. This means that, in John’s account of the Passion story, the trial scenes before the chief priests and Pilate are treated in extensive detail and lead to the central question ‘Art thou a King then?’. Following the Gospel, Bach too gives great weight to the dialogic sections of the trial, makes special use of the opportunities for dramatic shaping, and makes the theme of the kingship of Christ his own. But already the opening chorus speaks of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (‘Lord, our Master’). In the same vein, the central aria after the death of Jesus, ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, features an emphatic middle section on the text ‘Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht’ (‘The Hero of Judah is victorious in power’) hymning His triumph over death. And even the closing chorale with its opening words recalling the text of the work’s first chorus, ‘Ach Herr …’, is no funeral dirge but offers a prospect of the end of time and the eternal praise of the Heavenly King.

Whereas the St Matthew Passion, with its framing sections, stands in the tradition of the Baroque Passion oratorio, the St John Passion draws on the older tradition of the sung Passion historia, which customarily began with a plain introduction (‘Höret das Leiden unsres Herrn Jesu Christi …’—‘Hear the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ’). The opening chorus of the St John Passion combines the instructive character of the second section of the text, ‘Zeig uns durch deine Passion’ (‘Show us by thy Passion’), with the underlining of Christ’s kingship in the first section, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’, based on the opening formula of an old prayer used in Electoral Saxony, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Name herrlich ist in allen Landen!’ (‘Lord, our Master, whose Name is glorious in all lands!’). The liturgical function of the Passion setting as a sermon in music also finds expression in the dual chorus that concludes the work. The burial chorus ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ is followed by the chorale strophe ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein / Am letzten End die Seele mein / In Abrahams Schoß tragen’. The chorale individualizes the events of the Passion by underlining the words ‘die Seele mein’ (my soul), but at the same time, with its call to prayer, harks back to the didactic opening of this setting.

Among the distinctive features of the St John Passion is its relative downplaying of contemplative verse and thus the relegation of the solo numbers to a less important position. The number of arias is not large, and individually they are kept within relatively modest proportions. Whereas in the St Matthew Passion Bach underlines the significance of the poetic text, and hence the solo element, by inserting extended ariosos before most of the arias, the St John Passion has only two paired movements of this type. Similarly, there are no duets and only two movements combining soloists and chorus. Moreover, between the opening chorus and the chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ there are no tutti movements on freely composed texts. In the scoring of the arias Bach generally limits himself to either wind soloists or strings and dispenses with more elaborate accompaniment. The aria ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, placed at the centre of the work, is set in the style of a French tombeau, but deliberately breaking with the conventions of the da capo aria. While the middle section normally achieves contrast by reducing the dynamics, here Bach does the opposite: the A sections are for reduced forces (solo viola da gamba), the B section for full string orchestra; this corresponds to the markings Molto adagio for A and Vivace for B. The model for this ABA form is the French overture, but here its emblematic significance implies not the usual meaning (‘the king is coming’) but something highly unusual (‘the king is dying’—and at the same time ‘The Hero of Judah is victorious in power’).

In the structuring of its recitative, too, the St John Passion goes its own way. For example, a characteristic feature of the St Matthew Passion is the emphatic underlining of Jesus’ words in the Gospel narrative by string accompaniment. In the St John, all the soliloquentes (the biblical characters who express themselves in direct speech) are accompanied only by continuo. In compensation for this Bach brings out certain passages of particular importance in the text with a motivic treatment in regular metre: this is the case with Peter’s lament (‘und weinete bitterlich’) and the scourging of Jesus (‘und geißelte ihn’). The corresponding passages in the St Matthew Passion are set in significantly less striking fashion.

Also of great import in formal terms are the unusually broadly laid out and elaborate ‘turba’ choruses—that is, the sections of biblical dialogue for the chief priests, the people, the soldiers and the disciples. The original Johannine text already gives these dialogues considerable importance from a purely quantitative point of view, and Bach heightens their impact by compositional means. He further creates a system of thematic-motivic correspondences which gives the choral interjections of the various groups a cyclical organization through repetitions. The starting points for Bach’s formal method are the equivalent repetitions in the Gospel narrative (such as ‘Jesum von Nazareth’, ‘Kreuzige’ and ‘Wir haben keinen König’ / ‘Schreibe nicht der Jüden König’). Moreover, the multiplicity and concentration of the choruses stimulated the emergence of a network of formal relationships through the creation of symmetrical correspondences. This system of thematic-motivic relationships forms a correlate to the outer movements of the Passion. Thus, the internal organization, guided by the biblical words, and the external frame are very closely interconnected, defining the liturgical function of the work and thus revealing Bach’s first Leipzig Passion setting as a mediator between the older Passion historia of the seventeenth century and the more modern Passion oratorio.

from notes by Christoph Wolff © 2013
English: Charles Johnston

Other albums featuring this work
'Bach: St John Passion' (CKD419)
Bach: St John Passion
MP3 £8.00FLAC £10.00ALAC £10.00 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £18.00ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £18.00 CKD419  Download only   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Fauré: Requiem; Bach: Partita, Chorales & Ciaccona' (LSO0728)
Fauré: Requiem; Bach: Partita, Chorales & Ciaccona
MP3 £6.50FLAC £6.50ALAC £6.50 Studio Master: FLAC 24-bit 96 kHz £9.75ALAC 24-bit 96 kHz £9.75 LSO0728  Download only   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

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