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Bach: St. John Passion



Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
St John Passion


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Stephen Layton (conductor)


Recording details: April 2012
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: March 2013
Total duration: 117 minutes 44 seconds


I seem to spend a lot of time in these newsletters enthusing about new discoveries, revived rarities or fresh perspectives on well-known repertoire but today I’m going to evangelise (pun intended) about a very straightforward recording of a very familiar work. This new St John Passion from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Polyphony doesn’t use a new or unfamiliar version of the score; it’s not taken from a staged performance (though the spitfire drama of the crowd-scenes sounds as if it might have been), and it doesn’t employ unusually large or small forces: it’s remarkable simply because it’s practically perfect in every way. This is essentially a ‘traditional’ period-instrument performance, at standard baroque pitch and with the players of the OAE (on the best form I’ve heard them in years) numbering just over twenty. Notable recent recordings of the Passions have tended to be either super-sized (the Berlin Phil’s staged Matthew, which I reviewed around this time last year) or pared right back, Rifkin-style, with just a couple of singers on each part, often sharing solo duties too. Polyphony treads a middle ground, with thirty-odd mixed voices (the combination of male and female altos works beautifully, right from their pungent first entry in the hair-raising opening chorus) and the perfect mixture of character and blend: many of the (predominantly quite young) singers here already have fledgling solo careers underway and several have pretty sizeable voices, but there’s no grandstanding or intrusive vibrato anywhere and the smaller solo roles are all taken with panache. Where you can hear each individual voice, however, is in the baying crowd-scenes: every single singer seems to have a character here, and the cumulative effect, especially at Layton’s aptly frenetic tempi, is really quite terrifying. (Try ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ – as the avaricious bystanders cast lots for Christ's cloak – with its percussive, vicious sibilants and see if you don’t agree!). The gifts for story-telling and word-painting which have won Ian Bostridge such acclaim in German song also make him a superb Evangelist: no dispassionate observer, this volatile St John is capable of switching from righteous anger to barely-controlled grief in an instant and though he’s been singing the Passions for over a decade he still sounds as if he’s telling this familiar story for the first time. (Though the booklet doesn’t acknowledge it, he also takes the short aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ – usually allotted to the tenor soloist - with blistering vehemence). The soloists, too, are all perfectly cast. Carolyn Sampson has to be one of the finest Bach sopranos around, with a clean, straight tone that has enough warmth and colour not to sound like an imitation-treble; Roderick Williams is grimly dramatic when summoning the hordes to Golgotha in ‘Eilt, eilt!’ and all tender humility in ‘Mein teurer Heiland’, whilst Nicholas Mulroy contrasts nicely with Bostridge and offers a spellbinding ‘Erwege’. But it’s Iestyn Davies who really takes the laurels. With never a hint of hootiness, absolutely no break between registers and seemingly limitless reserves of breath, his first aria (‘Von den Stricken’) is a marvel of control and line, and ‘Es ist vollbracht’ is just as good: the interplay between Davies and Richard Tunnicliffe’s weightless gamba obbligato is magical, and the triumphant allegro is one of the most vivid and exciting I’ve ever heard. I often receive emails asking for recommendations of particular works, and the Passions tend to crop up rather a lot because there’s such a range of different approaches on offer: when it comes to the St John, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a new winner. Reviewed by Katherine Cooper Presto Classical


On Good Friday at London’s St John’s Smith Square, Stephen Layton will conduct Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Bach’s St John Passion. These Polyphony performances of the masterworks marking the church’s major festivals have become a key constituent of the concert calendar, but this is the first time that the choir has committed an extended Bach work to disc. It will not be the last: the Christmas Oratorio can be expected later in the year. In the meantime this St John Passion brings to the fore the traits of style and taste that are distinguished hallmarks of Layton and the forces he gathers around him. The cast here, with one or two exceptions, is the same as the one that will be singing next Friday. Ian Bostridge is the tenor Evangelist, eloquent, pure of tone, fluent and strong in communicating the import of the German narrative. Neal Davies is a Christus of tender authority. The choir sings with a well-rounded sound, firm accents and with diction that brings the text crisply to life: the spitting out of the word nicht in the passage where the crowd asserts that it has delivered Jesus up to Pilate because he is a malefactor is just one example of how attentive this performance is to the colouring of words. It has been said that the St John Passion has affinities with Baroque opera in its almost theatrical evocation of time and place. Layton, with a fine quartet of soloists in Carolyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies, Nicholas Mulroy and Roderick Williams, harnesses the dramatic thrust of the Passion while also conveying its sacred, spiritual substance. 5 Stars Reviewed by Geoffrey Norris The Daily Telegraph


Stephen Layton and Polyphony perform the St. John Passion every year around Easter time, usually at St. John’s Smith Square in London. This recording was made in the days that followed their performance there on 6 April 2012. Bach revised the work several times, as is explained in the excellent note by the eminent Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff; this performance uses theNeue Bach-Ausgabe edition. A few years ago Hyperion issued a recording of the other seasonal staple of the Polyphony repertoire,Messiah (review). That recording was widely-acclaimed; will this new Bach recording be equally good? Among the many advantages with which it starts is the extremely strong line-up of soloists, including Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist. I’ve heard Bostridge in the Evangelist’s role in Philippe Herreweghe’s 1998 recording of theSt. Matthew Passion(Harmonia Mundi HMC 951676.78) and having been impressed by that I was keen to hear him in this role. In my view he’s a magnificent Evangelist though one aspect of his approach may not be to all tastes. He is highly expressive at all times and there are several occasions where some may feel he overdoes the expressiveness, drawing out the line of recitative slowly and expansively. One such example - there are several - is the passage of recitative describing the Crucifixion itself: ‘Allda kreuzigten sie ihn’ (CD 2, track 5). For myself, I find this approach very convincing and of a piece with Bostridge’s complete involvement with the drama but, as I say, some may prefer a less overtly expressive style. The gains from this approach are immense, witness the very moving description of the crucified Christ putting his mother into the care of his disciple, John (CD 2, track 7). Bostridge can be urgent too if the text demands it, as he often is in the scene of Christ’s judgement by Pilate. He deploys a formidable range of vocal colouring and takes immense care over the words. The text is delivered with great clarity throughout. He also sings the first tenor aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. He’s vivid in this highly demanding aria and I’m mildly surprised that he doesn’t then go on to sing the other tenor arias. Neal Davies is good in the role of Christ. He’s a fine singer, as we know, and his expertise in art song stands him in good stead here. I just have one reservation, and it’s a purely subjective one. In the scene before Pilate there are a couple of passages of recitative when he sounds a bit fierce, which rather goes against the conception I’ve always had about the demeanour of the suffering Christ. So, his response to Pilate, ‘Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt’, sounds to me to be more forthright than I would have expected (CD 1, track 16). A little later when he tells Pilate ‘Du hättest keine Macht über mich’ that sounds more angry in tone than I associate with those words (CD 2, track 1). However, that’s very subjective and others may well not hear the delivery in the same way; and, in any case, Davies’ singing overall is excellent. So too is that of Roderick Williams. Like the other two principal characters he paces his recitatives as Pilate convincingly and with intelligence. Where he really excels, however, is in the bass arias. All are done extremely well but ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ is exceptional. Here Williams uses velvet tone in a gentle, inward reading of this lovely arioso. By any standards this is high-class singing. The other soloists are heard in arias only. Nicholas Mulroy does the taxing aria, ‘Erwäge’ very well though I think the music would have suited Bostridge’s vocal timbre even better. The soprano has two of the finest arias in the work and Carolyn Sampson excels in both. In ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ she treats us to eager singing. Her tone is beguiling and light and this is an absolutely delightful performance. At the other end of the emotional spectrum lies ‘Zerflieβe, mein Herze’. Here the tone is ravishing, the line tenderly spun and Miss Sampson’s exquisite performance brings out all the sorrow in the music in just the right way. Iestyn Davies’s contributions further enhance his reputation. ‘Von den Stricken’ is excellent. His singing is clear and expressive and if I say that there’s a trace of fragility I most certainly don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s what I’d expect in this piece. In that aria the intertwining oboes are perfectly balanced against the singer and contribute significantly. Equally significant is the exquisite gamba obbligato (Richard Tunicliffe) in ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Davies is absolutely outstanding here, offering deeply expressive singing, his voice evenly produced. This is the most deeply affecting aria in theSt. John Passionand Davies ensures that it is a peak in this fine account of the work. So far the chorus hasn’t been mentioned and that’s unfair. Polyphony show vividly just what can be achieved in Bach singing by a fairly small professional choir, especially in terms of such things as flexibility, attack and agility. The choir numbers 31: 8/7/8/8; there are three female altos and four men. The singing is flawless throughout and the attention to detail is superb, just as you’d expect. Collectively they bring bite and a sense of vivid drama to the scene in Pilate’s court where they assume the character of the mob. However, for all the punchiness in their singing in these pages of the score - which strikes me as ideal - and their finesse elsewhere the passage that particularly caught my attention was the brief chorus in Part II, ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ (CD 2, track 7). The singing here is precise and marvellously light-footed. The closing chorus, ‘Ruht wohl’, is beautifully shaped and the chorales are nicely varied. That extraordinary first chorus, ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ bristles with tension, the cries of ‘Herr’ really arresting. I usually find that you can tell if you’re going to hear a good Passion according to how this first number is treated. Suffice to say that on this occasion the delivery is an accurate harbinger of what is to follow. It’s the orchestra that launches that chorus and so they carry the responsibility of grabbing the listener’s attention. This the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment do magnificently. They rack up the tension incrementally until youneedthe choir to take the music to the next level of intensity. Throughout the performance the instrumental playing is of the highest order, mixing finesse, agility and dramatic weight according to the needs of the moment. Without exception the obbligato contributions are distinguished. Stephen Layton directs a performance that is clearly rooted in long, practical experience of the score. His tempi are judiciously chosen and while he’s far from averse to an athletic speed when justified, you never feel the music is being rushed. He allows his soloists time to make their expressive points, judging the speeds of the arias expertly. The dramatic pacing of the ensemble sections such as the scene in the Garden and Christ’s appearance before Pilate is extremely convincing. As a generalisation the whole approach is light on its feet butneverlightweight. I admired this version greatly and felt caught up from start to finish in the drama and in Bach’s scheme of narrative and reflection. It only remains to be said that Hyperion’s presentational standards are typically excellent. The documentation is first rate and producer Adrian Peacock and engineer David Hinitt have produced the sort of admirable, clear and well-balanced sound that invariably characterises their work. You can sample extracts from all the tracks on Hyperion’s website. There are many recordings of Bach’s great masterpiece in the catalogue, quite a number of which offer fine performances, special insights or both. This desirable new recording deserves a place in the front rank. John Quinn

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