JS Bach St John Passion
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem has a long and distinguished history, claiming the first American complete performance of the B Minor Mass in 1900, and sustaining a magnificent educational programme today, reaching over 90,000 children. In one striking respect – its scale – the choir has remained the same, regardless of changing fashions. With over 100 choral voices, and 20 strings in the Bach Festival Orchestra, the choruses could hardly be more different from, say, Sigiswald Kuijken’s eight singers (reviewed July 2012).
The Bach Choir creates a hearty, committed congregation singing chorales, and characterises effectively as it asks in questioning staccato whether Peter is one of the disciples. But as a hysterical crowd, its blood-lust and self-righteousness anger lacks edge. In part this stems simply from the density of so many singers. But it’s also because in passages with single woodwind they’re placed well back behind the orchestra to balance them.
Perhaps to compensate for his weighty forces, Greg Funfgeld opts for some lively tempos. The opening chorus, though not the fastest on disc, is a somewhat hectic prayer to Christ to redeem his people on the cross. As the story unfolds however, Charles Daniels proves a superb evangelist, matching his narrative pace to the dramatic action with great sensitivity, while William Sharp is a restrained Christus, convincing without over-dramatising. Of the aria soloists, all excellent, Julia Doyle is outstanding. A nostalgic return to the days before lean, minimal Bach.