BACH St. John Passion • Monica Huggett, cond; Shannon Mercer (s); K. McCarthy (ct); Charles Daniels (Evangelist); Jacques-Olivier Chartier (t); Joshua Hopkins (Jesus); Tyler Duncan (bs); Capella Romana; Portland Baroque O • AVIE 2236 (2 CDs: 101:25)
This highly unusual recording came to me piecemeal (CD 2 first, then CD 1) without any booklet, liner notes, or identified performers unlessRead more one sifted through the track listings, and then only first initials given. I had to go online and spend the better part of an hour researching the cast and background of this performance. (As of January 9, 2012, Avie finally listed this set on its website under New Releases, but still does not identify all the soloists by their full names!)
The origin of this set seems to be performances of the St. John Passion arranged and organized by violinist-concertmaster Monica Huggett with the Portland Baroque Orchestra in March 2011. ArkivMusic listed its initial release date as January 10, 2011, which precedes the live performances by two months. Curiouser and curiouser! Upon further research, however, Avie’s own website didn’t even have the album listed, even by its catalog number, on Christmas Eve 2011 (when this review was begun), and both Allmusic.com and Allegro Music gave its release date as January 2012, which makes more sense. Such is the kind of detective work I had to do before even listening to one track of the performance.
A concert review by James McQuillen in The Oregonian explained its unusual sound. Huggett, wishing to reflect “the resources available to Bach in 1724,” stripped down not only the chorus but the orchestra. Flutes are omitted; in arias where they are requested, they are replaced by violin and oboe. Huggett also inserted instruments dear to the historically informed crowd, such as viola d’amore, viola da gamba, violone, and oboe da caccia. The continuo group consisted of organ, harpsichord, bassoon, lute, cello, and bass. Thus she was able to strip this music down to about a dozen instrumentalists and an equal number of singers.
In the live performances, Charles Daniels was indeed the Evangelist (and received high praise for his performance), while the other five singers were said to come from Montreal’s Les Voix Baroques. These were soprano Shannon Mercer, tenor soloist Jacques-Olivier Chartier, baritone Joshua Hopkins as Jesus, and Tyler Duncan as bass soloist, but countertenor Matthew White sang the contralto solos that are assigned on this recording to one K. McCarthy (no first name given). Joanna Blendulf played the viola da gamba solos.
Huggett has been around the HIP block a few times, having emerged from the background of a regular (non-historical) violinist. Her studies on the Baroque violin have included stints with Sigiswald Kuijken, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman, of whom the latter became a mentor. Huggett and Koopman cofounded the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in 1980, although Huggett later became the group’s sole leader. She has been the music director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra since 1995. Her recording of the Bach orchestral suites was nominated for a Grammy.
All of which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to this recorded performance, and what a gem it is. The highest compliment I can pay it—and, I would think, the highest compliment any critic could pay it—is that one listens here to Bach, not to Huggett or a group of musicians and singers. In other words, what I hear is the score, flowing along with unfettered ease as well as dramatic emphasis; in so many places, I stopped and listened, carefully, to what was going on both on the surface as well as underneath, and in the end I was both moved and deeply satisfied with what I heard. Soprano Mercer sounds a trifle unsteady in one of her part I solos, but fine elsewhere. Our countertenor, listed only as K. McCarthy, is identified on the CD sleeve with an A for alto. I wish they wouldn’t do that. Unless your male soprano or alto was actually castrated in childhood, he is a countertenor, thank you. Nevertheless, McCarthy is quite fine and not annoying in his brief appearances. Both tenors are excellent, but Daniels gets high marks for interpreting the Evangelist’s lines without overdoing them. Hopkins, our intrepid Jesus, has a wonderful voice albeit a little short on the bottom end. Chartier and Duncan are likewise excellent. I, for one, do not miss a larger chorus or orchestra—nor, for that matter, the much-vaunted flutes. This is simply a superb reading of the score in every respect.
Competing versions include Peter Schreier (also 1724 version) with the Dresden Staatskapelle and soloists Roberta Alexander, Marjana Lipov?ek, Schreier, Olaf Bär and Robert Holl (Newton Classics 8802052); Frans Brüggen with the Capella Amsterdam (24 choral singers and 33 instruments in the orchestra) and soloists Carolyn Sampson, Michael Chance, Markus Schäfer, Thomas Oliemans, and Peter Kooy (Glossa 921113); and a critical favorite, John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir with singers Bernarda Fink, Katherine Fuge, Mark Padmore (doubling as both Evangelist and soloist), Hanno Müller-Brachman, and Peter Harvey on Soli Deo Gloria 712. Huggett and her modestly rated Portland forces are as good as any of them.