SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

J.S. BACH: John Passion (Reconstruction of the Passion Liturgy) – Dunedin Consort/ Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist and tenor)/ Matthew Brook (Jesus and bass)/ Joanne Lunn (sop.)/ Clare Wilkinson (alto)/ Robert Davies (Petrus and Pilatus) U. of Glasgow Chapel Choir/ John Butt (dir., harpsichord, org.) – Linn (2 discs)

This may be a first for Bach's passion setting in its original format.

Published on March 23, 2013

J.S. BACH: John Passion (Reconstruction of the Passion Liturgy) – Dunedin Consort/ Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist and tenor)/ Matthew Brook (Jesus and bass)/ Joanne Lunn (sop.)/ Clare Wilkinson (alto)/ Robert Davies (Petrus and Pilatus) U. of Glasgow Chapel Choir/ John Butt (dir., harpsichord, organ) – Linn multichannel SACD CKD419 (2 discs), 139:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This reconstruction is, according to the title, “The Leipzig Service of Vespers for Good Friday”. For the first time I believe, we have an example of one of Bach’s passion settings included in the original format, or at least as far as we can tell. Essentially the service is in two parts corresponding to the bipartite format of the passion, with the sermon (available online) given in the middle. There are some additional antiphons and readings straight from the Lutheran service of that time, padding the total time of the recording by about 20 or so minutes.

Of course Bach was writing his passions about the time—maybe for two years—when passion settings were starting to make their way into services. Bach’s 1724 John Passion, as it was called, was sure to have shocked the multitude for parishioners who first encountered it for its severe musical challenges and its unremitting dramatic arias, more so that the more serene and balanced Matthew Passion. The opening chorus alone, with it mystical and winding tonality, was to cause enough problems that the next year Bach replaced it, completely overturning the tone of the piece—he reverted to the original the next time around. The church of St. Nicholas, which saw its premiere in Leipzig, was a secondary venue that Bach was not happy with, intending for the St. Thomas Church to benefit from the first performance instead. One can only imagine the astonished faces when this work was introduced. Bach would turn again to the passion four or maybe five times total in his life, including the year before his death. 1739 was a performance that should have seen some creditable changes in the work, though the work was not performed in the end. But it is the version that Butt and forces choose to give us here, with the original chorus intact.

The performance is a fine one, even exceptional, using about six strings, 14 players, and an augmented chorus of eight with half of them serving as superb soloists—no one-to-a-part, thank goodness. The additional parts of the vespers use about 26 singers of an additional chorus. In this case they are supposedly used as a congregational chorale, and sing very well. The only thing that really bothers me in this performance is the context—I am being forced to hear this the way the first congregants would have, during the course of a Good Friday service, and that for me makes it a little archeological, because I know that I am not at a real service. The enjoyment then becomes historical instead of purely dramatic. This is not necessarily bad, but it is a consideration. It teaches us something but adds very little to the experience of hearing the St. John Passion.

The surround sound is very good, fully complemented among all the speakers, and palpably vibrant. If a contextualized John Passion is what you are looking for, then you have found your place.

—Steven Ritter




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