John Quinn
MusicWeb International
May 2011

The contribution of The Monteverdi Choir is, predictably, very fine indeed. This is evident from the very first chorus where, supported by acute playing from the orchestra, their singing is marvellously incisive. The chorales, too, are excellently done throughout the work. But the high point of the choral contribution is the choir’s work as the crowd in the judgement scene in Part Two. This whole extended passage, driven on by Mark Padmore’s searing narration, is riveting. The choir is absolutely superb, most effectively conveying the impression of a baying mob—though the singing is never less than cultivated. Their cries of ‘Kreuzige’ are electrifying. But that’s not all: just a few moments later the clarity and precision of the singing in ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ is excellent. Later on the precision and dexterity of the singing in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’, taken at breakneck speed, really catches the urgency of Bach’s writing.

The English Baroque Soloists support all the singers, solo and choral, with playing of great accomplishment and proficiency. All the obbligatos are delivered with fine artistry and the ensemble playing is of an equally high order. The instrumentalists play a full part in ensuring that the tension of the performance is set at a high level—right from the very start of the first, suspenseful chorus and throughout.

Over all this presides Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I know some people don’t like his way with Bach, feeling that sometimes his direction of the music can be too brisk in style. Having immersed myself in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage I don’t subscribe to that view. There may be the occasional misjudgement—no conductor is infallible—but over the years I’ve found him to be a thoughtful and stirring Bach interpreter and that’s once again the case here. He contributes an extensive and fascinating booklet note in the course of which he comments that the experience that he and his colleagues had of performing all Bach’s surviving sacred cantatas in 2000 made them look afresh at the St John Passion when they returned to it subsequently. While I’m certainly not about to discard my copy of Gardiner’s 1986 recording I’d say that this new version, which has the added electricity of unedited live performance, brings new dimensions to his interpretation. I find it an involving and moving experience.

As usual, SDG’s production values are very high and the engineers of NDR Kultur have done excellent work in producing truthful, atmospheric and well-balanced sound. I hope that further recordings of Bach’s major choral works will follow from this source. For now, however, this splendid new account of the St. John Passion is something that all devotees of Bach’s vocal music should try to hear.