Bach: St John Passion (1725 version)

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: St John Passion (1725 version)
PERFORMER: Mark Padmore, Malcolm Bennett (tenor), Michael Volle, Sebastian Noack, Dominik Wörner (bass), Sibylla Rubens, Cécile Kempenaers (soprano), Andreas Scholl (alto); Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
At first glance we might be forgiven for thinking that Philippe Herreweghe has recorded Bach’s St John Passion for the second time. In a sense this is true, for Bach wrote no other Passion based on St John’s Gospel. But he has left us two quite distinct versions of it as well as others containing subtle if small variants. The favoured version among performers is the one Bach directed at Leipzig in 1724 but which achieved its ultimate state during the last year of his life. That version has been outstandingly well understood in a fairly recent recording by the Bach Collegium Japan (BIS). In his new release of the St John Passion Herreweghe, by contrast with his earlier recording, has opted for Bach’s 1725 Leipzig version in which he made several substantial revisions. The most important of these concern the opening and closing choruses for which Bach substituted entirely different music from the previous year, the addition of a bass aria ‘Himmel, reisse, Welt, erbebe’, a stylistically galant A major tenor aria ‘Zerschmettert mich’ at the expense of the impassioned F sharp minor ‘Ach, mein Sinn’, and another for tenor, ‘Ach windet euch’, replacing the contemplative bass arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ with its two viole d’amore. Costly changes, but a performance which allows us to hear Bach’s second thoughts in their proper context, as opposed to finding them relegated to footnote status is welcome. And this is a very fine performance, with outstanding contributions from choir and soloists alike. Few if any lovers of this fervent and intimate drama will reject the 1724/49 version in favour of the present one, but this performance is the strongest advocate for it that I have yet heard.