WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Joe Littlewood (treble), James Gilchrist, Matthew Beale (tenor), James Bowman (countertenor), John Bernays, Eamonn Dougan, Colin Baldy (bass); New College Choir, Oxford, Collegium Novum/Edward Higginbottom
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557296-97
Six years after Bach first performed the St John Passion, a Lutheran theologian wrote of such events: ‘When this theatrical music began, all were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, looked at each other, and said: “What will become of this?”. An elderly noble widow exclaimed: “God save us, my children! It’s as if we were at a comic opera”.’ It’s for his recognition of the dramatic nature and pace of the work that I’ve long had Gardiner as my benchmark.
Higginbottom, too, reflects the dramatic tempo, especially in the extended recitatives with chorus interjections; the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, leading to the scourging, is wonderfully highly charged. He is, though, a touch more reflective than Gardiner, with almost all such scenes taking a few seconds longer. The soloists here all have connections with New College Choir, from an exceptional treble of the present generation to Bowman, a lay clerk from 40 years ago. They form an effective team, particularly Gilchrist, a fine, expressive Evangelist, and Bernays, a very human Christus. Bit-parts are less striking, largely because they are rather down-staged in the theatrical aural spectrum.
The choir is excellent in all its three roles, as characters – bloodthirsty mob, self-righteous priests, gambling soldiers – as congregation singing well-paced chorales and as a reflective chorus at beginning and end. The orchestra, as its name suggests, was specially formed for the occasion. It’s highly polished, especially in the astonishingly varied obbligato contributions to the eight arias, each scored differently.
As a Passion drama tempered with contemplation, I commend this bargain most warmly. George Pratt