David Vernier
Classics Today

You would do better with Gardiner’s perfectly competent 1986 St. John Passion (Archiv) with these same choral/orchestral forces and an equally fine lineup of soloists (Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the Evangelist) than to slog through the ups and downs of this live 2003 production. It begins with a surprisingly uncoordinated effort by the entire ensemble in the 9-minute-plus “Herr, unser Herrscher”–and if this substantial opening chorus doesn’t impress, then why stick around? Singers and players are slightly, oddly out of sync, just enough to be unsettling; the pulse is there but not uniformly felt.

Nevertheless, I did stick around, and this condition recurs at other moments in the tuttis–also, we notice the choir’s annoying tendency to sing just behind the beat in many of the chorales (the very first one, “O große Lieb…” is a prime example). This is all too bad, because the soloists are excellent, their recits and arias superbly sung, with requisite drama and sensitivity; the choir, one of the world’s best and very well-informed in Bach performance, is as sonorous and vibrant as we can expect, given the disagreeable acoustic that works against clarity and detail; and the orchestra is likewise committed and energetic and possessed of some fine soloists and continuo players.

The earlier ensemble problems are mostly resolved by the latter half of Part II (this is the most straightforward section of the work, structurally and dramatically) and indeed it’s easy to be impressed with the ringing sonority of the (perfectly executed) chorale “In meines Herzens Grunde” and the sheer excitement of the urgent, jabbing rhythmic flourishes in the chorus “Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen”, depicting the soldiers arguing over the fate of the crucified Christ’s cloak.

Even with some fine highlights–including the Evangelist of Mark Padmore and the poignantly lovely aria “Es ist vollbracht!” by Bernarda Fink–this isn’t really an essential St. John Passion. Frans Brüggen’s 1993 reading (Philips), although not as overtly dramatic as some, is a thoughtful, effective conception, exceptionally well performed and recorded, and Edward Higginbottom’s rendition (Naxos) with his Choir of New College—a rare version sung by boys and men, including a marvelous boy soprano soloist–is definitely worth a listen. And as I said above, even Gardiner’s first recording of the work is overall better than this one.

Classics Today