SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BACH: Johannes-Passion (St. John Passion) – Soloists /La Petite Bande /Sigiswald Kuijken – Challenge Classics (2 discs)

Even in a very crowded field, Kuijken’s Saint John Passion is a standout.

Published on January 1, 2013

BACH: Johannes-Passion (St. John Passion) – Soloists /La Petite Bande /Sigiswald Kuijken – Challenge Classics (2 discs)

BACH: Johannes-Passion (St. John Passion) BWV 245 – Gerlinde Sämann, sop. /Petra Noskalová, alto /Christoph Genz, tenor (Evangelist) /Jens Hamann, bass (Jesus) /Mari Kuijkewn, sop./ Patrizia Hardt, alto /Knut Schoch, tenor / Walter Testolin, bass /La Petite Bande /Sigiswald Kuijken – Challenge Classics multichannel SACD CC72545 (2 discs), 33:25, 71:49 (4/23/12) [Distr. by Allegro] *****:

The notes to this recording of the St. John Passion are a series of interview questions with director Sigiswald Kuijken that include some interesting observations on the work. Perhaps the most telling from a performance standpoint is the comparison Kuijken makes between this passion and Bach’s later and more famous St. Matthew Passion. The interviewer asks a fair question: don’t the larger performing forces in the latter work—a double chorus and orchestra—make it more theatrical? Kuijken’s answer, which isn’t original by the way, is that on the contrary the earlier work is more dramatic, especially the passages in Part II where Jesus confronts Pilate and the Jewish people noisily reject him as their king and call for his crucifixion.

That could be said as well of the often tortured recitatives delivered by the tenor who represents the Evangelist—tortured in a musical sense as well, with strange modulations and dramatic vocal gestures. One of the most remarkable comes toward the end of Part I, where the Evangelist recounts Simon Peter’s third denial of Jesus. Peter remembers that Jesus had predicted he would do so. The text reads, Da gedachte Petrus an die Worte Jesus und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich (“Then Peter remembered the words of Jesus and went out and wept bitterly.”) The Evangelist is called on to make some memorable vocal contortions on the words weinete bitterlich.

Incidentally, this passage brings up some interesting points about the text of the Passion. For the most part, the recitatives and brief choral interjections are taken directly out of the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Gospel According to John, but occasionally there are brief interpolations from the other gospels as well; this passage borrows from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both of which mention Peter’s weeping bitterly. Otherwise, the poetry that appears in the arias, ariosos, and choruses is mostly anonymous though some verses are by Barthold Brockes, who wrote an oratorio libretto on the Passion, the best-known setting of which is by Handel (the Brockes Passion). Kuijken calls the libretto of the St. John Passion “a patchwork, a hotchpotch, a puzzle made up of diverse, pre-existing texts. . . .”

For many commentators, this patchwork of texts and the often raw drama of Bach’s music make the St. John Passion a less polished production than the St. Matthew Passion. But in the notes to the recording, the interviewer and Kuijken bring up an intriguing point: that the modest instrumentation, including the use of a variety of solo instruments (flute, viola da gamba, oboe d’amore) in the arias, makes the St. John Passion seem like an extended cantata or perhaps series of cantatas. It even ends with a final chorale, whereas the St. Matthew Passion ends with a big dramatic double chorus.

It’s obvious that Kuijken has done lot of thinking about the score and it shows. This is a performance that bespeaks understanding and sympathy with Bach’s plan for the work. While I was less than enthusiastic about Kuijken’s recording of Bach’s cantatas for the liturgical year—at least the volume I sampled (Volume 13 dedicated to Easter cantatas)—one of my chief objections had to do with the sound, which I found close-up and rather airless, emphasizing the Spartan vocal and instrumental forces employed. No such problem with the current recording, however, which is very flattering, making the eight vocalists and thirteen instrumentalists sound more imposing than their actual numbers would imply.

As in the cantata performances, the singers are superb, right from the start—that long, restless opening chorus, which Bach in his usual way builds into a grand contrapuntal statement with what seems initially like very modest musical material. The four soloists (Sämann, Noskalová, Genz, and Hamann) are all exemplary in their roles, but Christoph Genz deserves the lion’s share of kudos, and not just because as Evangelist he has the lion’s share of singing to do. The drama and pathos he brings to the part are thoroughly affecting.

Arkivmusic.com lists seventy-six(!) recordings of the St. John Passion; there’s one for every taste, from the old school (Benjamin Britten, Karl Richter, Eugen Jochum) to the newest of the new school, which I guess covers this one-voice-to-a-part performance from Kuijken and his forces. Even in such a crowded field, this is a very special rendition, and I highly recommend it to all lovers of Bach.

—Lee Passarella




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