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|Appréciation d'ensemble / Overall evaluation :|
Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Two more St John Passion recordings follow Dunedin Consort’s recent triumph. After the profoundly impressive recent liturgico-contextual vision for the St John Passion from the Dunedin Consort and John Butt, two further visions of the work present themselves. The first, from Gary Graden and his Stockholm forces, follows a more mainstream line than either the immediacy of the persuasive ‘role playing’ from the Dunedins (among the various protagonists of Evangelist, Jesus, the crowd, congregation and so on) or the high-achieving account from Stephen Layton and his strikingly accomplished forces.
For all the spacious and visceral ritual in Graden’s performance — and there is something of the unassuming devotions of his predecessor at St Jacob’s Church in Stockholm, Eric Ericson — the quality of the performances never quite matches the ambitious intentions. Mikael Stenbaek is a serviceable Evangelist and he warms to the task but the arias are decidedly short on tonal variety. ‘Erwäge’ lacks real control and, generally, the intonation and integration between soloists and instrumentalists (‘Von den Stricken’ is a particular example of the latter where the alto and oboes seem strangely unconnected) are hit and miss. More impressive is the way Graden summons up something of the singular historia ideal of Schütz and his contemporaries: those sparse exchanges — such as in, for example, an especially effective Pilate scene — where old oratorian drama prevails. However exciting and attentively paced an interpretation, the over-accented turbae, variable soloists (the bass aside, whose ‘Betrachte’ arioso is particularly telling) and unconvincing eccentricities in the chorales rather compromise better instincts.
Stephen Layton’s outstanding new St John is about as state-of-the-art a Bach Passion recording as you’ll hear. For all its referencing various traditions, the overall signposting is pitched in the ‘middle of the road’ (and I mean that simply as one likely to satisfy as broad church as any available recording) and yet it appears remarkably fresh-sounding. Take as read the urgency, clarity, balance and declamatory unanimity of the chorus; Lindsay Kemp described the equivalent in Butt’s version where the effect of ‘a [single] voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality’. Layton’s reality is about cultivating the focus of each sentiment with supreme corporate executancy.
Where Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist offers us intense reportage and touchingly personal asides, Ian Bostridge is the master story-teller who surveys all about him, impeccably delivering every nuance of every word. Some may find it too consciously etched, yet in the context of Layton’s carefully weighted reading it is both deeply subtle and consistently finessed.
Alongside the top-class and pliable choral singing of Polyphony comes the roll call of exceptional soloists — Nicholas Mulroy among them. Indeed, his ‘Ach mein Sinn’ conveys as rarely before the blend of inner mournfulness and savage panic which Bach inspires with this terse chaconne-inspired movement. More worldly still is Carolynl Sampson’s delectable ‘Ich folge’, where seasoned discipleship rather than bright-eyed innocence prevails.
The noble Christ of Neal Davies and the deeply felt singing
of Roderick Williams complement the kaleidoscope of vocal expression here with
their capacity for reflective commentary (‘Mein teurer’ is über-elegant), as
does Iesytn Davies in a treasurable ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Such is Layton’s
overall grip and understanding of the generic dramatic properties of the St John
— especially in controlling tension and release — that we have here a perfect
balance for the greater spontaneity of John Butt’s touchingly inhabited and