BACH: St. John Passion – 3 Releases: Academy of Ancient Music/ Crouch End Festival Chorus & Bach Camerata / Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben – Naxos, MDG

BACH: St. John Passion – James Gilchrist (Evangelista)/ Neal Davies (Christus)/ Sophie Bevan (soprano)/ Iestyn Davies (Alto)/ Ed Lyon (Tenor)/ Rodererick Williams (Bass)/ Benedict Kearns (Petrus)/ Tony Ward (Servus)/ Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Academy of Ancient Music/ Stephen Cleobury – King’s College multichannel SACD KGS0018 (2 discs), 109:23 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

BACH: Johannes-Passion – Veronika Winter (soprano)/ Franz Vitzthum (countertenor)/ Andreas Post (tenor)/ Christoph Schweizer (baritone)/ Thomas Laske (baritone)/ Bernhard Spingler (bass)/ Stefan Weible (tenor)/ Lucian Eller (bass)/ Hille Perl (viola da gamba)/ Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben/ Handel’s Company/ Rainer Johannes Homburg – MDG multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MDG 9021985 (2 discs), 106:77 ****:

BACH: St. John Passion (sung in English) – Sophie Bevan (soprano)/ Robin Blaze (countertenor)/, Benjamin Hulett (tenor)/ Robert Murray (Evangelist)/ Andrew Ashwin (Pilate, Peter)/ Neal Davies (bass-baritone)/ Ashley Riches (Jesus)/ Peter Jaekel (organ)/ Crouch End Festival Chorus & Bach Camerata/ David Temple – Chandos multichannel SACD (2 discs) CHSA5183, 109:77 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Three terrific representations of this seminal work.

Aside from the very close timings on each of these releases, there are a few other things in common. The use of a counter-tenor (unfortunate), period instruments (all three superb ensembles), and the use of Super Audio. Regarding this, the Cleobury is the most tempered, as the King’s College recordings usually are, the Homburg most liberal in the sonic spread—again, typical for MDG—and the Chandos the most distance and deep (again, not untypical for this company). Choir size is varied—Cleobury around 34, which we are all used to, and of course using boys, Homburg about 70, and, unusually for a modern German group, using boys (and one of the oldest boys’ choirs in the country), and a remarkable 110 in the Temple release. We must also excuse, and somewhat set apart, this last issue, as it is also the first English recording in over 45 years, and as such garners special attention.

So, there is a modicum of joy to be exhibited over this English release. I find it more than strange that the decision to use period instruments with a hundred-voice choir was accepted, as this puts the rather dogmatic positions of the HIP (historically informed performance) practitioners in some jeopardy. Perhaps we are starting to see a change in attitudes—time will tell. But I can report that it all seems to work, and work nicely, and this is after all, a festival chorus, and festivals everywhere, but especially in Great Britain, seem to be rather large scale affairs. The new Neil Jenkins translation is idiomatic, though I doubt to ever hear a performance more wonderful than when I sat in on the late lamented Robert Shaw’s rehearsals in Atlanta of his English version (one of the tragedies of the gramophone is that he never recorded his English version in later life, though the 1950 recording for RCA—the first complete version, and criminally never released on CD—is now a collector’s item). However, there are some concerns. For instance, the opening line from the (preferred) 1724 original, “Herr, herr, herr! Unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm” is far more theologically accurate in the English translation “Lord! Lord! Lord! Our Redeemer”, at least in intent (or even, though more accurate and strangely weird, “Sir! sir! sir!” that Benjamin Britten used in his 1971 recording) than “Hail! Hail! Hail! Lord and Master”. This one changes the appellation of a named person into a method of calling out to someone, and even though it works fine musically, it is not reflective of the actual German text.

Nevertheless, as indicated, the words fall naturally throughout, and it is nice to hear the English, even though anyone with great familiarity of this work will not likely miss them. It’s also nice to hear a well-rehearsed and educated choral group attempt this monument. Edition-wise, always a conundrum in this piece, the New Novello Choral Edition is used, which takes Bach’s late 1730s score combined with the 1724 words and 1749 revisions, as good a solution as any. This is a welcome release indeed.

Stephen Cleobury has been performing this work nearly his entire career, and so it comes as no surprise that he should present us with a performance that ranks with the absolute best. There are no upsetting moments here—the Academy of Ancient Music retains it standing as one of the best period music ensembles in the world, King’s College nonpareil among contemporary sacred music bands, and the recording gorgeously captured in a venue most of us are quite familiar. Some will balk at the use of a boys’ choir, and this is of a very English tradition (among others in the world, as we shall see), but it is also a question of what you hear is what you get, and what you hear is something especially gratifying and satisfying. The choir is in as good a shape as I have ever heard it, and Cleobury has the measure and manner of the work from first note to last. No matter how many St. Johns you might own, you owe it to yourself to sample this one, given here in the pure light of Bach’s original 1724 score.

As I said, others also have used boys’ choirs, and while they are not as prevalent anymore in Germany, they are still quite noticeable, and the one appearing on this new MDG release is stellar in all ways, even though, curiously enough, the diction used, while accurate, does not seem to be quite as precise and crisp as Cleobury’s. Homburg employs the 1749 version, Bach’s fourth performance of the piece and a return to the 1724 original, with slightly more opulent scoring. This is in many ways the most effervescent of the readings here, dark when needed, but optimistic and brilliantly illuminating in its lightness and transparency. Not surprisingly, the spaciousness of the Super Audio sound is phenomenally effective—though I have yet to experience the patented “2+2+2” MDG surround, and probably never will considering the odd speaker setup—and one also gets a full feeling from the formidable forces of the 70-odd choristers. This reading falls into the category that I would call “solid”—not especially revelatory from an interpretative view, but replete with performance excellence on all levels, and certainly one that will always leave you reliably satisfied.

Three terrific representations of this seminal work, each sans overloaded interpretive point making, each worthy of your consideration.

—Steven Ritter

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