Bach: St John Passion (1725 version)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: St John Passion (1725 version)
PERFORMER: Ruth Holton (soprano), Bogna Bartosz (alto), Markus Brutscher (tenor), Thomas Laske (baritone), Tom Sol (bass); Cologne Chamber Choir, Collegium Cartusianum/Peter Neumann
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 332 0983-2
This new recording of Bach’s St John Passion offers the second version of a work with a complex compositional background. Bach first performed the earlier, more modestly dimensioned and more expressively intimate of his two complete surviving Passions at Leipzig in 1724. In the following year he put it on again, but with significant changes to the opening and closing chorale-anchored numbers, and with three newly composed numbers: two arias for tenor and a duet for soprano and bass. Though Bach was later to prepare two further versions of the St John Passion, he nevertheless inclined towards his first thoughts, withdrawing the substitute pieces of the 1725 version.

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I find plenty to enjoy in Peter Neumann’s alert and sensitive direction and so a performance of this uncommonly heard version is all the more welcome. The newly introduced music is, one need hardly say, of a high calibre, though some of the vocal writing of the da capo tenor aria (A major) ‘Zerschmettert mich’ always strikes me as untypical of Bach, often recalling Telemann (at his best). It’s a splendidly declamatory piece, very well sung by Markus Brutscher who also takes the role of Evangelist. The other soloists are also effective, with contralto Bogna Bartosz providing a welcome alternative from the nowadays seemingly almost obligatory male alto. Much as I enjoy the new music which Bach introduced to the 1725 St John, the version as a whole is less homogeneous and therefore less satisfying than the original, which he continued to refine almost up to the end of his life. But if you want to get to know it, this is probably the one to go for. Otherwise my first recommendation is that of Bach Collegium Japan which follows, as far as possible, Bach’s 1749 version. Nicholas Anderson