Bach: St John Passion

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Juliane Banse (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Michael Schade, James Taylor (tenor), Matthias Görne, Andreas Schmidt (bass) Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
CATALOGUE NO: 98.170
The St John is the earlier of Bach’s two surviving Passions, tersely dramatic where the longer St Matthew, with its greater number of arias, is lyrical and contemplative. Bach performed the St John Passion four times at Leipzig – in 1724, 1725, 1732 and 1749 – each time making substantial alterations to the score. He also, in 1739, began a major revision of the work, but soon abandoned it.

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This new recording by Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling comes with a third CD that traces the work’s complex history and offers samples of the variant versions. In particular, Rilling includes the five ‘new’ movements that Bach used only in the 1725 St John (opening chorus, three arias, closing chorale) and which recent research suggests may derive from a 1717 Passion, now lost. Apart from a 1732 scoring of the arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’, the remainder of the bonus disc comprises excerpts rather than complete movements and focuses chiefly on the 1739 revisions. Each track is preceded by a spoken commentary from Rilling, who succinctly discusses the likely reasons for Bach’s alterations. This is fascinating, well-presented material, of obvious interest to all Bach aficionados.

Rilling’s performance of the ‘usual’ (1724-based) St John should impress too, especially those who like their Bach gloss-finished by a large chorus and string section. Michael Schade is a brilliantly expressive Evangelist, though in consequence the recitatives move slowly, making the work rather mono-paced.

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The singing is generally impeccable, yet I found the alto and soprano solos curiously uninvolving. Gardiner (Archiv), with greater variety of tempi and distinctive soloists, or the pacy, small-scale Scholars Baroque Ensemble (Naxos), give more vivid and emotionally gripping readings.