Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

J.S. BACH: St. John Passion

spacer Lunn, Wilkinson; Mulroy, M. Brook, R. Davies; Dunedin Consort, University of Glasgow Chamber Choir, Butt. Text and translation. Linn CKD 419 (2) 


One of the most thought-provoking recordings of the past few years, and ultimately one of the most fulfilling, this release returns Bach's Saint John Passion to its liturgical context. Conductor John Butt and the Dunedin Consort place the work within the parameters of the type of Good Friday Vespers service Bach would have known during his time in Leipzig. Before Part One of the Passion we hear an organ chorale prelude, a chorale from the congregation (the full nine stanzas of "Da Jesus an dem Kreuze Stund," which include the Seven Last Words) and an excerpt from an organ prelude. Part One is followed, as it would have been in this period, by a congregational response, including a chorale and additional organ music. This would have been followed by a sermon, which is not included on the recording, but an appropriate sermon by Erdmann Neumeister, whose texts were set by Bach in some cantatas, is offered as a free download for those listeners who want the total immersion. After Part Two of the Passion, an additional sequence involving a motet, prayers, a blessing and additional organ music offers a further thirteen minutes of material. The organ music, played by Butt, includes a Buxtehude excerpt, and the motet, by Jacob Händl Gallus, is an especially lovely a cappella piece. With the text "Behold how the righteous man dies," it is an apt moment of reflection after the completed Passion.

The various elements of the service in between the two parts of the Passion automatically magnify the accustomed imbalance of Part One and Part Two, with the latter much longer and, of course, graver of tone. But the liturgical context has also brought about a real, perhaps unique, progression in the musical performance of the Passion. Alto soloist Clare Wilkinson, for example, offers a perfectly nice Part One solo with "Von den Stricken Meiner Sünden," but when she returns in Part Two after her ongoing participation in the communal telling of the story, she sings a world-weary "Es ist vollbracht!" — parched of humanity except for sudden defiance at "Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht." Matthew Brook sings Jesus in a plain, Everyman sort of way, literally and figuratively stepping out of the chorus, but he is then enthralling in the Part Two bass arioso "Betrachte, meine Seel." (We don't often think of Bach as one of history's great orchestrators, but in this piece the sickness and creepiness of the scoring, aligned with the moments of greatest chromaticism, are brilliantly achieved.) Nicholas Mulroy's Evangelist is simple and humble as can be, but in Part Two his tenor solo is sweetly, presentationally sung. The choral singing of the small core of Dunedin soloists is deferential in Part One, rising to sputtering consonants in Part Two in lines such as "keinen König denn den Kaiser," and the precision of "Lasset uns den nicht Zerteilen" is something of a miracle. With the musicians keenly attuned to the Good Friday liturgy, it is not reading too much into the performance to hear a "to be continued" quality in the final chorus "Ruht wohl."

Conductor John Butt is a discreet painter every step of the way, beginning the Passion at a surprising moment with considerable urgency, holding on to pedal points with the tenacity other maestros reserve for Ravel's Bolero and pointing up the conspiratorial quality of the oboe da caccia in "Zerfliesse, mein Herze." The instrumentalists cover themselves in glory, with the two viola d'amore parts in "Erwäge" (done on muted violins) sounding as one and the viola da gamba solo in "Es ist vollbracht!" (played on cello by Alison McGillivray) a full presence in the drama. 

This project was a major challenge for the recording engineers. It involves a church acoustic, cranky organ overtones and choral groups of vastly different sizes. (The small Dunedin contingent sings the Passion turba choruses, the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir sings the Passion chorales and the motet, and a large group of Scottish singers portrays the congregation.) Yet the recorded sound gives the listener the perspective of sitting in a single seat for the entire evening. spacer


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