St John Passion
Julia Doyle (soprano), Alexander Chance (countertenor), Nick Pritchard, Peter Davoren (tenor), Alex Ashworth (baritone), William Thomas (bass); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
DG 486 1822 115:61 mins (2 discs)
John Eliot Gardiner’s 1986 studio recording of the St John Passion for DG Archiv set a new benchmark. Then came a live set enshrining a 2003 concert performance in Könnigslutter’s Kaiserdom – a viscerally-charged reading that arguably superseded its predecessor. Now comes a third: also live but given at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, socially-distanced, and without an audience. It was streamed on Good Friday last year and marks Gardiner’s return to the DG fold. As the accompanying Blu-ray underlines, it’s also a reminder of the tribulations faced by music-making under Covid; and of the transcendent, transformative power of music. It felt, says Gardiner, like emerging out of hibernation, and that might account for the (very) few insecurities. But the wonder is that in the circumstances the performance emerges so taut, dramatically focused, and exactingly crafted.
It’s hardly a surprise though. The Johannes-Passion has long held a special place in Gardiner’s heart; and, singing off-score, his choir doesn’t so much relay the narrative as inhabit it. Virile yet supple, the singers are equally at home as a baying mob, avaricious soldiers or the vehicle through which Gardiner tellingly weighs every word in the commentating chorales. And once again he’s struck gold in his Evangelist. In the English tradition of light, lyrical tenors, Nick Pritchard is consummately involved and involving – the perfect vocal foil to William Thomas’s Christus, a bass with ringing, measured authority. Among the arias Julia Doyle’s ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is a quicksilver delight. The 2003 recording on Gardiner’s own label remains first choice; but, two decades on, his Bach has lost none of its bite.