Brian Wilson was very complimentary about this recording of the St John Passion in his Download News 2013/4. Like me, Brian had also been listening to the new Stephen Layton disc on Hyperion. That excellent recording is a different proposition to the one now before us in that Stephen Layton presents a performance of Bach's great setting as we're accustomed to hearing it, using the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. I hope to show in this review why it would not be an indulgence to have both if your budget stretches to this.
Like Brian Wilson, I don't wish to get involved in the debate about the size of choral forces for Bach; that's an area where angels fear to tread. What I will say, however, is that my general preference—as a matter of taste—is to hear Bach's sacred music performed by small choirs of the scale of The Monteverdi Choir or The Sixteen—or even the small choir employed, years ahead of his time, by Karl Ristenpart.
Before discussing the performance it may be helpful to say something first about the version of the work that John Butt has used and then about the forces involved. John Butt deals with the question of the text in a detailed and scholarly—yet very readable—note. In essence he has followed the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, though noting that this has come in for a good deal of scholarly disapproval. He has incorporated some of the changes to the instrumental scoring that Bach made in connection with performances of the Passion subsequent to its first presentation. The version offered here is what Butt conjectures might have been given in a projected 1739 Good Friday presentation of the St John Passion which, in the event, didn't take place.
However, most listeners are unlikely to notice any significant differences between this and the familiar Neue Bach-Ausgabe. As for his forces, Butt has used just eight singers—the four principals as Concertists and four more as Ripienists—and it's worth pointing out that both the altos are female. In his orchestra he has two each of first and second violins, a viola, two cellos/gambas—a cello is used in ‘Es ist vollbracht'—and a violone. There are the usual pairs of flutes and oboes, a bassoon and organ. John Butt himself plays the harpsichord and also plays the organ preludes that we hear. The congregational chorales are sung with alternate verses in unison and four-part harmony. The harmonised verses are sung—very well—by the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir. For the unison verses John Butt has assembled a sizeable vocal group which includes not only all the other singers involved here but also, in a nice touch, many Scottish-based amateur singers who have participated in Dunedin workshops as well as people who have supported the Consort's work in other ways: they make a splendid sound.
That leads me nicely on to what exactly it is that we hear on these discs for what is presented is much more than the ‘conventional' St John Passion. We are offered here a putative reconstruction of the service of Vespers as it might have been celebrated in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1739. This means that there is some music surrounding the Passion setting itself, though this does not intrude—if I may use that term—into the Passion. So, before Part I of the Passion John Butt plays Bach's Chorale Prelude Da Jesus an dem Kreuze Stund BWV 621 after which the original chorale by Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630) is sung congregationally. Butt then plays a brief extract from Buxtehude's Praeludium in F sharp minor BuxWV 146, after which Bach's great chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher' commences immediately. Hearing even a few bars of well-chosen organ music before Bach's uniquely suspenseful orchestral introduction to the first chorus is revelatory.
At the conclusion of Part I John Butt takes to the organ again to play Bach's Chorale Prelude O Lamm Gottes unschuldig BWV 618, which is followed by the chorale sung by the congregation. In the Lutheran liturgy the congregation would then have heard a substantial sermon. That's not included here but, typifying the thoroughness of this project, an appropriate sermon and related material can be downloaded free from the Linn Records website. The sermon, by the way, lasts for forty minutes!
As a prelude to Part II John Butt plays the Chorale Prelude Christus, der uns selig macht BWV 620 and that is followed by the self-same chorale as the Passion resumes. There's no more additional material until the Passion is finished so I'll reserve further comment until then.
The performance of the St John Passion is a fine one, taut and dramatic for the most part but fully in tune with the many reflective passages. The first time I listened I was a bit thoughtful about Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist. Though his excellent singing was most certainly not without subtlety his style seemed a bit ‘public' and direct after experiencing Ian Bostridge on the Layton recording—and remembering also Mark Padmore's superb reading of the part on the Gardiner set. Further listening made me realise that Mulroy's assumption of the role is a considerable one in its own right. He often makes a bigger, one might say more forthright, sound than his aforementioned peers and his is certainly not the light, sappy voice that one has heard from some German tenors. However, I became increasingly drawn into his way with the narrative. It's often dramatic but he uses his voice subtly and gently at many points and, overall, his is a perceptive and persuasive reading. He also sings the tenor arias and he does them very well.
Matthew Brook is a dignified and authoritative Christus. His timbre is right for the role and, like Mulroy, he paces the recitative intelligently. He sings the bass arias and I appreciated especially his thoughtful account of ‘Betrachte, meine Seel'. Robert Davies does well as Pilate, singing with firm tone and bringing good presence to the role. Joanne Lunn has the two soprano arias. She brings a light, eager voice to ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls' in which the flutes also make a splendid contribution. Just occasionally I thought that in her desire for expression her enthusiasm sounded a little breathless but it's still a delightful performance. She is equally accomplished in the very different aria, ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze'. This achingly beautiful aria contains some of the most deeply affecting vocal music that Bach ever wrote and Miss Lunn sings it extremely well; her pure tone and expressiveness are ideally suited to the music. I'm not quite so enthusiastic about Clare Wilkinson, I'm afraid, though she sings intelligently and tastefully. To me her voice is that of a quite light, even lean, mezzo and her voice seems to fall between two stools. On the one hand she doesn't have the tonal—or expressive—richness of a Janet Baker. In the last analysis her voice has insufficient individuality for ‘Von den Stricken', still less for ‘Es ist vollbracht'. I suppose the style and timbre is right for an intimately scaled performance such as this and on its own terms her contribution is good but on this occasion ‘Es ist vollbracht' is not quite the expressive heart of the work that it should be. It may be that Miss Wilkinson was 'batting to orders' for it seems to me that in this aria the keening cello obbligato, though well played, is also a bit reserved.
The choral movements are a success and I soon forgot my inhibitions about slender forces. It's true that sometimes one misses vocal weight. On the other hand there are many gains from the use of such a small body of singers. For the most part there's great clarity in the part writing—I have one reservation to which I'll come in a minute—and the singers are able to bring tremendous precision, at pace, to a chorus such as ‘Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!' or to the exhilaratingly light-footed ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen'. In the chorus ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige!' the strong soprano line is a particularly important element driving the great intensity of the singing. The only reservation I have concerns balance. The vocal ensemble contains some strong voices and this means that the sopranos and tenors in particular are a touch prominent at times. In a chorus such as ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz', with its busy part writing, the alto line is rather hidden by the other parts. I do wonder if the use of male altos with their tonal cutting edge might have produced better results. However, the choruses have lots of bite and conviction and throughout the work the chorales are extremely well done.
The instrumental playing is very good—the woodwind obbligato playing is particularly fine. John Butt's direction is consistently surefooted with all the arias very intelligently paced. The lengthy scene before Pilate is full of dramatic tension and here in particular I felt a real sense of experiencing theatre in a small physical space.
At the end of the work the final chorale, ‘Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' is sung, as it should be, as a hymn of praise and trust in the Almighty. However, we're not finished and what follows makes even more sense than usual of that last chorale. Immediately after the chorale—and I completely agree with Brian Wilson that there should be a longer gap—the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir sings the a cappella motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacob Handl Gallus (1550-1591), This is a lovely, simple piece which receives a cultivated performance. There follow sung prayers and a blessing before Butt plays the Chorale Prelude Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 657. After this the congregation sings the original chorale by Johannes Crüger (1598-1662) and Vespers is over. I have to say that all this and especially the concluding chorale, lustily sung, makes even more sense than usual of the St John Passion ending not with ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine' but with ‘Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein'. Yes, the Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday was solemn and sorrowful but the faithful would have seen beyond the death of Christ to their redemption through his suffering and death. The proper conclusion to their liturgy was to give thanks and praise to God.
So, this new recording of the St John Passion offers us a very fine performance of Bach's masterpiece. However it goes much further by putting the Passion firmly and thoughtfully into context. As such it is one of the most stimulating versions of Bach's masterpieces that has come my way and it demands to be heard by all Bach devotees.
The production values are first rate. The documentation is excellent, offering not just the full text and translations but also an extensive and scholarly essay by John Butt. I listened to these hybrid SACDs in CD format and found the sound exceptionally clear and truthful: the recording has great presence.
I will not be surprised if this recording of the St. John Passion comes to be regarded as a landmark in the work's already distinguished discography.