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GRAMOPHONE (04 /2014)
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AAM Records

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Reviewer:  Lindsay Kemp


The opening chorus of any St John Passion will tell you much about the rest of the performance and here the first impression is of its being fast and loose. Not fast as in the driven belligerence of some other conductors or loose in the sense of being scrappy; no, rather it is that the chuntering orchestral disquiet and smooth choral lines of Egarr’s reading give it a sympathetic, aching kind of tragedy that contrasts with those readings that focus more on the sharp, stabbing agony of the cross – as if the emphasis is more on feeling the wider compassionate message of the Passion than on immediate reaction to the horror story of Christ’s trial and suffering.


And indeed this is how much of the rest of the work is. Yes, there is urgency from the chorus in the trial scene, but not of the shouty hysterical kind you sometimes get. Some of the crowd choruses are even light and distanced. An aria such as ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ is presented as something gentle, almost resigned, instead of the usual hairtearing angst; while ‘Erwäge’ is one of the most beautiful you’ll hear (the viola d’amoreplaying here sweet as anything). Much of what makes this possible is the presence of soloists with naturally expressive voices who can also inject telling interpretative details, such as Elizabeth Watts’s quick reining-in of the phrase ‘Mein Licht’ at the end of ‘Ich folge’ or impassioned surge of tone in the da capo of a heartbreaking ‘Zerfliesse’. They are moments that bring an almost Mahlerian penetration, as is the noble stillness of Sarah Connolly’s ‘Es ist vollbracht!’. Andrew Kennedy and Christopher Purves are also effective and kindly, if not possessing quite the same vocal lustre; Matthew Rose’s Christus is youthful and manly; and Ashley Riches’s Pilatus is complex and troubled (his ‘Sehet, welch ein Mensch!’ halting and uncertain of itself). And it comes as no surprise that James Gilchrist’s Evangelist is on the highest level of clarity and narrative intelligence.


In short, this is a St John with a distinct character of its own, and whether or not that will appeal is up to the listener. Those who prefer choral singing with sharpetched attack and refined blend may be disappointed by what they find here (and it must be said that the balance is not kind to the lower voices), but Egarr is good at using his 16-voice chorus to release the music’s natural line and warmth. That and its humanity.

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