BACH: St. John Passion – Hans-Jorg Mammel (Evangelist)/ Matthias Vieweg (Jesus)/ Maria Keohane, Helena Ek (sopranos)/ Carlos Mena, Jan Borner (altos)/ Jan Kobow (tenor)/ Stephan Macleod (bass)/ Ricercar Consort/ Philippe Pierlot – Mirare 136 (2 CDs), 114:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Bach wrote his passion-oratorio during the first year of his assumption of duties in Leipzig. The city fathers were rather strict in their Lutheranism, and forbade anything that remotely smacked of the newly-found opera craze that was infecting the country at the time, and seeped into the passion music of such luminaries like Telemann. As a result Bach was constrained, if such a word can be used, to employing the gospel only as the source of his libretto. Because of this the St. John Passion has perhaps the greatest text of any passion ever written, and Bach was determined to make the piece worthy of the scriptures he was setting.
In his own mind this caused many revisions, four to be exact, done over a twenty year period of time. The intervening versions saw some added, and rather profoundly harsh textual additions, including passages from the gospel of Matthew as well. In this recording two of those have been included as addendums, but basically the last (1749) version is given with some changes.
The 22-member orchestra undoubtedly is close to the historical approximation of the original forces, with lute, organ, and harpsichord as continuo. Eight singers are used, perhaps putting to doubt the one-to-a-part doctrine in terms of chorus numbers, but I would not have complained a bit if more had been used. This is a fine group however, and their performances are most convincing. Super Audio would have spiced up soup somewhat, but the sound is still excellent, and this becomes one of the top modern readings available. If I still prefer Richter and Ormandy, it’s because old habits die hard; this one will give much pleasure.
The unifying purpose of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn…