JS Bach St John Passion
For those still to be convinced by the one-to-a-part lobby who prefer their Bach with more flesh on the bone, Stephen Layton’s generously resourced choir of 30 singers and well-stocked orchestra might seem like an obvious fit. Add to that Polyphony’s track record in the St John Passion, plus a starry line-up of soloists, and this new recording’s credentials border on the unassailable.
There’s certainly no doubting the choir’s passion and poise, whether as a baying mob whose rage is carefully layered in the chorus that follows a chillingly venomous ‘crucify him’, or in the expressively balanced unaccompanied chorale verses – a Polyphony thumbprint, if slightly controversial. Layton relegates fully accompanied versions to an appendix. Hyperion spreads Part II of the Passion over both discs, regrettably sundering the dramatic continuity of the trial scene. Layton’s pacing is compelling – there’s no mistaking the gambling fever as the soldiers cast lots for Christ’s garment, though the introduction to ‘Von den Stricken’ sounds bottom-heavy and laboured. Yet the key pace-setter will always be the Evangelist, and Ian Bostridge sometimes cherishes the musical line over the narrative thrust. Neal Davies’s Christus has no intention of going ‘gentle into that good night’, and in Part I sounds almost fractious, but he reserves a melting tenderness for the utterances from the cross. It’s crowned by Iestyn Davies’s sublime account of ‘Es ist vollbracht’, his pure alto wrapped round the obbligato pathos of Richard Tunnicliffe’s viola da gamba. Both Carolyn’s Sampson’s arias are priceless.