Notes and Editorial Reviews
You could spend many hours of listening and fill dozens of pages of text to expound the similarities, differences, felicities, inconsistencies, and relative merits of the many past and present recordings of Bach's St. John Passion. After all, we're dealing with a work that existed in at least four different versions in Bach's time and that today is performed from different stylistic points of view and using various editions. We usually hear some form of the original setting first presented in Leipzig in 1724, based on a partial-autograph score from 1739. This is known as the "first version" and it opens with one of Bach's grand choral movements "Herr, unser Herrscher". In Philipe Herreweghe's own "first"
recording of this work with his Collegium Vocale Gent in 1987, he adopted this more-commonly performed version--and as carefully explained in the liner notes--also chose to use a female alto soloist for "subjective reasons" of timbre and expressive qualities.
Well, nearly 15 years later, Herreweghe has opted not only for the notably different "second" version (a revision that Bach produced in 1725, a year following the work's first performance) , but also seems to have found an ideal male alto in the person of countertenor extraordinaire Andreas Scholl. The immediate difference you hear is the absence of the original big chorus, which Bach replaced with the rather less ambitious chorale-based chorus "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß" that he later used again in the St. Matthew Passion. Other differences concern substitution of several new arias for the original ones, and replacement of the final chorale "Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein" with a more elaborate choral setting, "Christe, du Lamm Gottes".
Although there's really no question of choice here--if you like this work, you'll certainly want more than one of Bach's versions--this current set does offer certain advantages over its elder cousin. The playing here is more taut, articulation sharper, the rhythmic sense is more compelling, the energy of players and singers more vibrant. Even the tuning, which back in '87 was just a bit tenuous in spots (listen to the upper winds in the opening chorus), now is impeccable. The choral singing is equally lovely, strong, expressive, and well-balanced in both renditions and the soloists in each set are comparable both in their command of the textual drama and in their superior vocalism.
And it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with Scholl's intensely moving rendition of the aria "Es ist vollbracht" (It is accomplished), or indeed with any of his other contributions; his richly colored yet clear-ringing tone well-suits Bach's conception of these arias, both in their textual and instrumental context. Soprano Sibylla Rubens' voice in higher registers and at louder volume becomes too penetrating for my taste, but all of that is forgotten in her lovely rendition of "Zerfließe, mein Herze" near the end of Part Two. Certainly, the drama is all here--Herreweghe has refined his sense of pacing and really keeps things moving without giving the slightest sense of pushing or rushing his singers and players. Overall, you experience a tight, nicely projected piece of theatre that successfully manages, in Herreweghe's own words, to "conserve. . .the most complete religious serenity." The sound is just a bit less tangy and sharply detailed than is usual for Harmonia Mundi's productions with these forces in this repertoire, but a little extra boost in volume creates a satisfying, room-filling bloom.
If by chance you want to look elsewhere for your St. John experience, there are similarly recommendable (and almost identically-timed) recordings of the (more-or-less) 1724 version from Franz Brüggen (Philips), Andrew Parrott (Virgin), and John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv)--or, if you want an all-in-one package, you might try Helmuth Rilling's three-disc set with the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart (Hänssler) containing "the movements from all versions". But what you gain in completeness with Rilling you sacrifice in sound quality--trebly, overly bright, and a too-distant perspective. However, for my money, these two Herreweghe efforts make an appealing if not absolutely perfect set--and you won't find anything yet to compare with this superbly conceived and excitingly performed production of Bach's 1725 score. [1/17/2002]
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Saint John Passion, BWV 245 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Andreas Scholl (Countertenor),
Mark Padmore (Tenor),
Michael Volle (Bass),
Sebastian Noack (Bass),
Dominik Wörner (Bass),
Malcolm Bennett (Tenor),
Sibylla Rubens (Soprano),
Cécile Kempenaers (Soprano)
Ghent Collegium Vocale,
Ghent Collegium Vocale Orchestra
Written: 1724; Leipzig, Germany
Date of Recording: 04/2001
Venue: Stolberg Hall, Cologne, Germany
Length: 110 Minutes 51 Secs.
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