> Choral and Song
St. John Passion
Mercer; M. White, C. Daniels, Chartier, Hopkins, Duncan; Capella Romana, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Huggett. Libretto and translation. Avie 2236 (2)
Monica Huggett's new "period instruments" performance of the much-recorded St. John Passion with the Portland Baroque, of which she's been music director since 1995, stands out among recent releases for musical immediacy. There's a sense of dramainvested not only in the singing but in the orchestral and solo playing. The instrumentation is pared down (fewer than fifteen players) but not lacking in depth as recorded here. Huggett, an expert violinist herself, deploys a viola da gamba, two violas d'amore, a violone and an archlute (strikingly played by John Lenti), which will surprise and/or displease only those wedded to Karl Richter's massed strings. Following recent research on what instruments Bach might have utilized at the Leipzig premiere, no flutes are heard at all, not even in the soprano arias "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" (we hear violin) or "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" (we hear two oboes). The choral work is similarly lean-textured but fulfilling.
Except for the Evangelist, veteran British tenor Charles Daniels, the vocal soloists are Canadian, members of the Montreal-based Les Voix Baroques, although some have worked in opera in the U.S. This must be the first Bach Passion I've encountered, live or on records, in which the best vocalism is offered by the lower male voices. Joshua Hopkins (Jesus) and Tyler Duncan (Pilate) share the bass arias. Duncan does very well, with a well trained and elegant sound; occasionally the very end of a long phrase is slightly blemished. Hopkins, a familiar presence from NYCO, Santa Fe and elsewhere, sounds just plain terrific — forthrightly noble, clean-toned and sonorous. Shannon Mercer has a very pure, girlish-sounding light soprano, agile and often pleasant to hear but occasionally tested under pressure on high. Jacques-Olivier Chartier finds the passagework easier than the sustained notes in "Ach, mein Sinn," but thereafter he offers excellent singing in a traditional (narrow but pleasant) "Bach tenor" like those of specialists Theo Altmeyer and Kurt Equiluz. Countertenor Matthew White takes the alto parts, showing good phrasing and breath control but a rather wan and disembodied timbre; "Es ist vollbracht" lacks any sense of consolation. Daniels's Evangelist may divide opinion. He shows admirable artistry, verbal expression and ductility, but the actual tone can sound curdled and dessicated. For some listeners that makes an "authentic" Evangelist — the figure's narration should stand out from the other singing — but it accords rather peculiarly with the rest of the sound world Huggett and forces present here.
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