Bach: St. John Passion

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: St. John Passion
PERFORMER: Ingrid Schmithusen, Yoshie Hilda (soprano), Yoshikazu Mera (countertenor), Gerd Turk, Makoto Sakurada (tenor), Chiyuki Urano, Peter Kooij (bass); Bach collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
CATALOGUE NO: CD-921-22
It’s reported that, after a Passion performance (composer unknown), an elderly noble widow exclaimed: ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at a comic opera.’ Though Bach never wrote an opera, he was no stranger to the genre. His cantatas reflect the recitative/aria structure and the Passion story provided the missing element, dramatic narrative. In the theatre of his imagination, Bach’s response matched anything staged by his secular contemporaries.

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The music is dramatic from the start: dissonant wind above nervous violins and pulsating bass, before the choir prays of the glory and pain of the Passion. Suzuki balances the layers beautifully: the dense texture, recorded fairly close, retains every detail.

Türk’s narrative as Evangelist is accompanied by harpsichord, with organ added for the words of Jesus. He sings with dramatic insight, though without the theatrical sensitivity which sets my benchmark – Rolfe-Johnson’s offhand approach to less consequential moments exemplifies the visionary realism of Gardiner and his team.

The chorus is a fearsome mob – indignant, angry, self-righteous in turn. As the Christian congregation, its chorales flow without sanctimonious pauses. The soloists are superb in their eight arias, each differently coloured. Orchestral playing is meticulous, the intonation exemplary, even in the wind-players’ B flat minor graveyard, as the soprano’s heart ‘melts in floods of tears’ (No. 35).

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My benchmark remains. But if you prefer reverence to dramatic realism, this outstanding achievement will surely be for you. George Pratt