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American Record Guide (07-08/2016)
BR Klassik 900909

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Reviewer: William J. Gatens


In his program notes, Karl Böhmer writes at some length about the different versions of the St John Passion and the fact that it would have been performed in Bach’s day by no more than eight voices, with the soloists also singing in the chorales and choruses. Bach never produced a definitive final version of this, as he did for the St Matthew Passion. The first version was written in Bach’s first year at Leipzig for Good Friday of 1724. The 1725 version marks the greatest departure from his original conception, with three replacement arias and a new opening chorus based on ‘O Mensch Bewein’ that was later transposed up a semitone for the conclusion of Part I of the St Matthew Passion. In 1739 Bach began work on what would have been a definitive version of the St John Passion, but broke off for unknown reasons towards the end of Part I. The version of 1749, the year before he died, returns for the most part to the original conception of 1724, but with some revisions of the aria lyrics (possibly mandated by the city authorities) and instrumentation.

The “standard” performing edition is a compilation that corresponds to none of these exactly. In general the libretto of 1724 and instrumentation of 1749 are favored. It seems somewhat odd that Böhmer should delve into these historical matters when the present recording is essentially the “standard” version performed by a choir of about 30, a separate quartet of soloists for arias and recitatives, and separate soloists for the Evangelist and Jesus.

The performance leaves a mixed impression. The instruments seem closer and clearer than the voices. In several places the solo voices are overbalanced. In secco recitatives the harpsichord is so prominent as to be a distraction.

Peter Dijkstra generally favors quick tempos. The orchestral introduction to the opening chorus of Part I has a boldness and urgency that is very effective. The recitatives tend to sound rushed and abrupt. The drama of the work demands vehemence, but the effect here is more frantic than dramatic. Greater rhetorical

nuance is required. Much the same can be said for the crowd choruses. They should be ferocious, but that does not mean the tempos must always be blisteringly fast. Over the course of the work that can be tiresome. The treatment of the chorales is often a vexed question. I am convinced that they represent the voice of the congregation, even if they are not actually sung by the congregation. They ought to be sturdy, dignified, and steady—the devotional pillars that uphold the more personal devotion and elaborate music of the arias and the narrative flow of the recitatives and crowd choruses. Some directors turn them into perfunctory little choral allemandes. Others treat them as subjective choral part songs with many inflections of tempo and dynamics. Dijkstra does not fall headlong into either of these extremes, but he inclines to the part song approach, especially with exaggerated breaks for commas in the text that do not correspond with the musical phrases. The soloists are very good, though with the possible exception of Julian Pregardien (Evangelist) their names are not quite household words. Bass Tareq Nazmi has the dignified gravity for the role of Jesus. One of the most beautiful aria performances here is by alto Ulrike Malotta, whose rich tone and vocal control make ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ from Part II deeply

moving. Soprano Christina Landshamer is clear and lithe in the athletic lines of ‘Ich Folge dir’. Tenor Tilman Lichdi sounds technically stretched in ‘Erwäge, wie sein Blutgefärbter Rüchen—tentative in places. Bass Kresimir Strazanac is overbalanced in ‘Eilt, ihr Angefochtnen Seelen’, but he hardly has a fighting chance with Dijkstra’s blistering tempo, which makes the aria sound almost trivial.

The competition is stiff in recordings, and without presuming to give a general overview, it is worth mentioning some that I have found particularly attractive. John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and an impressive roster of solo singers (SDG 712; J/A 2011) delivers a performance that is at once poised and dramatic. Philippe Pierlot (Mirare 136; S/O 2011) proves that the work really can be performed convincingly with slender forces. The recording by Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 921; S/O 1999) may not be as strong dramatically as some others, but he excels in the heartbreakingly meditative quality he brings to the arias. Peter Dijkstra, who is described here as “an avowed anti-specialist”, has been director of the Bavarian Radio Choir since 2005.

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