Classical CD Reviews

BACH: St. John Passion – soloists/ Polyphony/ Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment/ Stephen Layton – Hyperion (2 CDs)

This could be my favorite St. John Passion to date—it is certainly the equal to any other out there.

Published on May 8, 2013

BACH: St. John Passion – Ian Bostridge (Evangelist)/ Neal Davies (Christ)/ Carolyn Sampson, soprano/ Iestyn Davies, countertenor/ Nicholas Mulroy, tenor/Roderick Williams, bass/ Polyphony/ Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment/ Stephen Layton – Hyperion CDA67901 (2 CDs), 118:10 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

To recap: there are five extent “versions” of Bach’s St. John Passion. I say this because today’s listening audience doesn’t always get what’s on the inside of the recording package by reading what is on the outside. To complicate things, the version that Layton has chosen follows the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, a respected edition that offers plausible solutions to the problem of this multi-sourced work, one which Bach never ultimately finished yet spent a lot of time over the entire span of his career working on. Layton in fact in innovative to an extent in that he offers three choruses sans accompaniment based on an annual performance tradition of his, and includes the accompanied versions at the very end of the last disc—as if anyone is going to bother to program them in.

The St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig heard the first performance of the piece in 1724, incorporated—as the passions always were—in a Good Friday Vespers. (See here for a recent recorded example of what that sounded like.) The following year saw radical changes, with the first and last choruses jettisoned. 1728 restored these but got rid of the final chorale and the passages from Matthew’s gospel which Bach included for dramatic reasons. 1739 saw the reworking of the Passion, but also a number of other large choral works, including St. Matthew Passion, though this one remained incomplete. The final 1749 version, his last go around at the piece, involved changing some of the poetic texts, tampering with the orchestration, and beefing up the continuo parts. Yet it also remains incomplete. So we will never have a definitive version, though if one takes the original and uses some of the 1739-49 changes we can have a fairly good example of what his thoughts were at the time, at least the ones he set down in ink.

I have to respect almost anything Stephen Layton does; his work with Polyphony is superb in all instances, and to my unfettered delight he takes a very sensible approach to this Passion. We have a 20+ sized orchestra with a 30+ size chorus, about as refreshing as I can imagine. Ian Bostridge is marvelous as the Evangelist with Neal Davies a very bold Christ. The soloists, headed up by the magnificent Carolyn Sampson, are superb, while Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment live up to their considerable reputations. Hyperion‘s engineering is outstanding, with sound that is lively, focused, clear, and exceptionally deep. This could be my favorite St. John Passion to date—it is certainly the equal to any other out there. [Unfortunately rather expensive and not SACD...Ed.]

—Steven Ritter




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