* BACH: St. John Passion (arr. Schumann, 1851) – Soloists/ Rheinische Kantorei/ Das Kleine Konzrt/ Hermann Max – CPO (2 SACDs)

by | Aug 16, 2007 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BACH: St. John Passion (arr. Schumann, 1851) – Veronika Winter, soprano/ Elisabeth Scholl, soprano/ Gerhild Romberger, alto/ Jan Kobow, tenor, evangelist/ Ekkehard Abele, bass, Arien, Pilate/ Clemens Heidrich, bass, Jesus/ Rheinische Kantorei/ Das Kleine Konzert/ Hermann Max, conductor – CPO Multichannel SACD 777091-2 (2 discs), 113:23 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The first things you will notice about this recording are that 1) It does not sound radically different from what you are used to, no matter what stylistic preference; 2) the forte  piano; 3) the more dramatic than usual continuo. The next thing you will notice if you are smart enough to play this on an SACD player is the wonderful transparency of the sound, and the splendid surround distribution. Yet, even on headphones (as I write this) the sound is beautifully clear and resonant, though I don’t hear the sixteenth notes in the opening movement as distinctly as I have in some other recordings. I don’t think this is due to the recorded sound, but to either interpretation or a more wanton smoothness because of the instrumental changes. Yes, there are instrumental changes—this is, after all, 1851, and it is Schumann who is “updating” this seminal work for his audiences. Bach was not the household commodity then as he is today, and performers and composers took great liberties to adopt him to modern circumstances and tastes (as if that is never tried today!).

So let’s get the details out of the way first. You can see the soloists in the heading; add to them 28 members of the chorus (mixed, divided 7-7-7-7), a healthy 25 strings (8-8-4-3-2), the above mentioned fortepiano, and two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and trumpets, and you get the idea. No, this is not a Beecham-like blowout, but something more on the order of what Mozart did when tinkling with Messiah. It is all very tasteful, creative, and downright wonderful, and one can easily see from this “arrangement” that Robert Schumann had the greatest respect for old Bach.

The St. John Passion has served as he ugly stepsister to the St. Matthew Passion almost from the very beginning. Though Mendelssohn was all ablaze with excitement before his 1829 premier of the latter work, he never concerned himself with the former. Schumann did begin including arias and choruses from the St. John when he had his own choir in Dresden. He seemed to prefer it, and when he moved to Düsseldorf in 1851, the Passion was to be one of his first projects, performed on Palm Sunday. Schumann took the liberty of dropping many of the numbers because of expediency—for instance, there were no oboe da caccia or viola d’amore players around at the time. He also reassigned parts and changed keys. A total of five movements are missing from Schumann’s score in certain places, and he freely re-orchestrated the movements when the more ancient instruments were not to be found. In this performance all of the movements found in Bach’s original are included.

In those pieces that Schumann omitted and left no score, conductor Max makes his own decision about orchestration (in the style of Schumann). The composer left a few dynamic markings and such, but enough to see that he was aiming for an operatic style of singing and playing. Curiously though, this is not what we get here; aside from the aforementioned dramatic continuo, the work is played in a manner that even a periodist would be able to enjoy. Schumann’s orchestration provides a richer, more fully developed sound, much smoother than we are used to hearing in this work, but you can easily lose yourself in this music completely forgetting about the instrumental changes.

Jan Kobow’s evangelist is a wonder, as good as you are going to hear, and all of the soloists fulfill expectations, as do all of the performers generally. This is a truly outstanding issue, and I can easily see myself reaching for it as often as I do one of the traditional recordings—and I love this work! CPO’s notes are detailed, thorough, and interesting. Don’t treat this as a mere curiosity—this is a serious issue replete with superb performances and excellent sound, well worth the time of anyone.

— Steven Ritter 

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