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BACH: St. John Passion

spacer Watts, Connolly; Gilchrist, Kennedy, Riches, Rose, Purves; Academy of Ancient Music, Egarr. Texts and translations. AAM Records AAM 150020 (2)

Recordings AAM Passion Cover 415

J.S. Bach’s employers at St. Thomas’s church in Leipzig exacted a signed promise that he would compose music “not operatic in character but rather conducive to devotion.” He honored the agreement — with exceptions. In his St. John Passion he “must have raised many an orthodox Lutheran eyebrow in Leipzig,” writes Pieter Dirksen. That writer singles out, among operatic effects, the unusually vivid, gory text of the tenor aria “Erwäge,” in which Christ’s bloody back, after the scourging, is compared to a rainbow in the sky, a sign of God’s blessing. Bach’s inventive response to such textual cues — with pictorial, concrete and specific musical devices — helps explain the work’s appeal to secular listeners today. 

Popularity alone, however, can’t explain the existence of some seventy-five recordings of the St. John Passion. That profusion also reflects the striking evolution in performance style in the past half-century; every decade seems to have brought forth “breakthroughs” in “authentic” vocal and instrumental manner. Listeners can choose among old-fashioned recordings with big operatic casts and modern instruments; historically informed versions employing just eight choristers and a handful of oboes and viols; and just about fifty shades of gray in between.

This dynamic new recording aspires to a downright severe period flavor by reducing the choral and instrumental ranks and especially by reconstructing Bach’s original, rarely heard 1724 version (the first of four), in an effort to approximate what the first congregation would have experienced. This is, as the notes say, “a rare opportunity,” but it is not unique; a fine recording in 2009 by the Netherlands Bach Society under Jos van Veldhoven also reverts to the 1724 version, with ample period flavor and a skeleton crew, although instrumentation varies between the two.

Egarr’s set is marked by a tight, acerbic choral and instrumental tone and, as if in compensation, an urgent, dynamic and fiercely inflected delivery. The opening chorus is almost astonishingly fast and drab; even the tiny choir in the van Veldhoven version sounds richly diversified in comparison because of its freer rubato and dynamics. But it proves hard to resist the seriousness and concentration that mark Egarr’s style. Individual reactions to the solo singers, however, are likely to vary.

An excellent cast includes James Gilchrist as the Evangelist, with Matthew Rose and Ashley Riches as leading characters. Surprisingly for a “period” recording of such commitment, there are no countertenors; the arias are entrusted to the more conventional, nonspecialist voices of Elizabeth Watts, Sarah Connolly, Andrew Kennedy and Christopher Purves. Timbres are rich, with strong impact in slow arias like the alto’s desolate “Es ist vollbracht.” But rough aspiration in extended melismatic passages sometimes undermines the intended vocal imagery; the rushing sequences of notes need greater fluency to suggest spiritual alacrity (in the soprano aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”) and a pilgrim’s urgency (in the bass’s “Eilt, ihr angefochnen Seele”). 

There is also the subjective question of interpretation in those pictorial, onomatopoetic “operatic” passages sited by Dirksen and other commentators. When the Evangelist tells of the whipping of Christ, he sings a series of some fifty rapid-fire notes on the word “geisselten” (scourged), in whiplash-repeated patterns, performed to great effect here. In other cases there’s a tendency to exaggeration. After Peter denies knowing Christ, we hear that the disciple went off alone and “weinete” (wept), a verb that is extended syllabically for several measures, in two successive strings of meandering, chromatic notes. Here Gilchrist as the Evangelist lays on the pathos so thick that we seem to hear more sobbing than singing. The tenor also oversells a few lines of secondary importance such as “it was cold,” which, in this version, tugs at the heartstrings unnecessarily. 

Nevertheless, even listeners not fanatical about period style will find much to admire here. Egarr conducts with a sure dramatic sense, seldom ostentatiously (aside from the aforementioned instances) but with hair-trigger responses, sudden transitions and telling hesitations. His deployment of the (small) chorus is masterful, especially in sudden outbursts or in the close-order interchanges between the crowd and Pilatus or other single voices. There’s forceful dramatic timing, for instance, in the dialogue between bass soloist and chorus in the aria urging Christians to Golgotha. Oratorio delivered at this pitch becomes a musical-dramatic unity that transcends ideological content or stylistic debates. spacer 



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