J.S. BACH: St. John Passion (1725 version) – Machteld Baumans, sop./ Maarten Engeltjes, alto/ Marcel Beekman, tenor/ Mattijsvan de Woerd, bass/ Frans Fiselier (Jesus)/ Nico van der Meel (Evangelist)/ La Furia Ensemble/ Concerto d’Amsterdam/ Nico van der Meel – Quintone 08001 (2 CDs), 111:06 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
I am not sure how much attention I would have paid to this release had it not been for the “1725” appellation. The St. John Passion is one of those works with a tortured history that makes assembling performing versions somewhat chancy and haphazard. Bach really wrote only three passions that we know of, this one, the St. Matthew (easily the most “documented” of the three) and a St. Mark that was culled from existing cantata movements, and has been at least tentatively reassembled for a few recordings. The work was created a year after his assuming the Leipzig position and was required to provide passion music on Good Friday. It was performed in 1724, 25, 28, and once during his final years. Mostly what we hear, when we hear this piece, is taken from the final and forth version near the end of his life. Of the four, the 1725 is most divergent from the other three.
Bach swapped out the opening and closing choruses, two tenor arias, and added one aria to effect the changes which appear in the 1725 version. To this day we have no idea as to why he did this; the premiere did not take place in the Thomaskirche but the Nicolaikirche instead. The next year the church of St. Thomas received the honors, but the changes had been implemented, and if you have never heard them you will be in for a bit of a shock. Gone is the glorious and dramatic “Herr, unser Herrscher”, replaced by a more meditative hymn composed 200 years earlier by Matthaus Greiter “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sunde gross”. The effect is not nearly as gripping, and for the life of me I don’t know what external pressures must have been brought to bear on Bach in order to persuade him to change it, for the subsequent history of the work has the original restored. Nor can I bring myself to believe much of the quasi-theological hoopla that is in the notes that seeks to explain the changes. Something pressured the man, and when it was lifted he went back to the schema he knew was correct.
So what of the performance? Van der Meel uses a 16-voice choir and 20-odd musicians, so at least he is not infected with one-to-a-part syndrome. But the sound lacks definition and the dramatic effect is not as forceful as we could hope; I think this is intentional, in keeping with the more “meditative” inflection the booklet notes seem to revive. Overall it really changes the nature of the piece, and a St. John Passion without the passion can’t possibly hope to work; nevertheless, the performance is sincere on its own terms, and it is worthwhile to have a copy of this interesting though aberrant version, though I could never consider it a first choice in this piece. The instrumentalists and singers are all first rate, and aside from the quibble about the sound there are no complaints to be had. By its nature this version is destined to be a poor cousin; but it does adequately supply some missing information about a highly suspect handful of changes that Bach felt, at least once, compelled to make to this masterwork.
An excellent survey of a favorite Chopin genre…