John Butt freely admits that his new recording of the St John Passion is a reconstruction of a performance that never took place. It's a leap of imaginative faith; an ideal. Yet how illuminating such leaps can prove. Those outside the Lutheran tradition so often come to the Bach Passions as it they were some sort of altarpiece, deprived of their sacred surroundings and hung in a gallery to be revered as a great work of art. By putting the St John Passion in a liturgical context—the first time this has been done on disc—Butt reminds us that it was part of a living act of worship, and just how potently private and public devotion intersect: emotive solo arias interact within the bigger picture of gravelly unaccompanied congregational signing, chant and organ chorale preluding. In a concert performance the final chorale usually dissolves into silence before applause. Here it seamlessly surrenders to a tender funeral motet by Jacob Handl Gallus which, far from dissipating the moment, intensifies it—and bridges the transition from Bach into the closing solemnities. Similarly, at the start the maelstrom of the opening chorus emerges out of a Buxtehude organ prelude. It's thrilling. And for those with stamina seeking added ‘authenticity', it's possible to download from the Linn Records website a lengthy sermon such as anchored the Vespers service.
Of course all this would be purely academic if the performance didn't match the commitment of Butt's vision. But those already familiar with the Dunedin's St Matthew Passion will know what to expect. With a total of ten voices (including soloists), Butt and his forces yield a dramatic, exactingly nuanced, profoundly considered reading, compelling in its integrity and text-driven immediacy. The chorus—eight voices at full stretch—conjure up real venom, and the scene as lots are cast for Christ's garment is dispatched with gurgling frenzy. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy's firmly-contoured Evangelist balances the musical and narrative imperatives of the recitatives with judicious sensitivity, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook's Christus stands up to the crowd with a dignified yet firm resolve and hallowed charisma. He also shapes ‘Mein teurer Heiland' with easeful repose. Clare Wilkinson's ‘Von den Stricken' might sound a touch disengaged, but her ‘Es ist vollbracht' is enthralling. Joanne Lunn is achingly poignant in ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze'. Butt's contextualising demands to be heard: it's nothing short of a revelation.