BACH: St. John Passion – Soloists/RIAS Ch. Choir/ Academy for Old Music Berlin/ Rene Jacobs – Harmonia mundi (2 discs)

by | Jun 6, 2016 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Outstanding in every facet, this could be, just maybe, the one to own.

BACH: St. John Passion (1749 + 1725 Appendix) – Werner Gura, tenor/ Sumhae Im, sop/ Benno Schachtner, alto/ Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor/ Johannes Weisser, bass/ RIAS Chamber Choir/ Academy for Old Music Berlin/ Rene Jacobs – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD (2 discs) + DVD HMC 802236.37, 2:15:20 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:

This is the version completed right at the end of Bach’s life, with the powerful and familiarly haunting “Herr, Herr, Herr” in the opening chorus. I mention this because there is an appendix from the 1725 version that includes some numbers also rather popular but not in the regular performing version presented here, and the opening of that earlier edition is absent the aforementioned chorus. However, in a generous and wonderfully intelligent decision by Harmonia mundi, they have included three free downloads, one of the 1749 version given in toto here, and also the complete 1725 edition as well, both offered in a high def 24 bit FLAC file, about ten times the size of a normal 128kbps MP3 file. This is a great treat, and you can even give the third download to a friend like I did! The offer is only good from the initial release date for a period of two years, and only good for this initial batch, so if this is of interest you don’t want to delay too long. Also, the bonus DVD of about 55 minutes of Rene Jacobs rehearsing the work makes for a wonderful diversion.

The grouping of the players and singers is a little odd also, as you will see in the DVD, with Jacobs attempting greater clarity and textual definition, with several different “stages” being set up. In the surround sound, each channel in the 5.1 outing is discrete, resulting in a stunning separation of the voices yet maintaining maximum integration when needed.

So how’s the performance you ask? Excellent! Does it steal the show from all previous recordings? No, but that is asking an awful lot of any recording. The singers are all excellent, Sumhae Im and Werner Gura Harmonia mundi house artists of well-known provenance and established credentials on the international scene in particular. The chorus is what you have come to expect from the RIAS folks, and Jacobs always provides a thought-provoking and intelligently crafted outing, even when there are some eyebrow-raising moments that seem a little questionable—as there always are, but that is what makes it so fascinating. The sound is magnificent.

Alternatives? Well, the St. John is my favorite passion by Bach and one of my favorite Bach works, so my tastes run the gamut. I do wish that Robert Shaw, whose rehearsal I sat in on years ago, had recorded the piece with Atlanta, but it was not meant to be. As is, there are some excellent readings out there, of which Jacobs now joins their company. For English I retain a love for the Britten and Ormandy (private label) recordings, as well as the staid but highly devotional Richter. Nico van der Meel on QuintOne offers the complete 1725 version in wonderful performances on period instruments, and Stephen Layton and his fabulous Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the magnificent Carolyn Sampson give a rather hybrid version developed over Layton’s 20 years of performing the piece. And for sheer perverse pleasure, the Schumann reworking is available on CPO with Hermann Max in surround sound. But if you decide that this Jacobs is the only recording you will ever need, I certainly am in no position to argue with you.

—Steven Ritter

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