Jeannette Sorrell conducts Apollp’s Fire in a performance of JS Bach’s St John Passion

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Avie
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Terry Wey (countertenor), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Christian Immler, Jeffrey Strauss (baritone), Jesse Blumberg (baritone); Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire/ Jeannette Sorrell
CATALOGUE NO: 822252236927

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The accompanying information for this new St John Passion describes it as a ‘visionary concept of a dramatic production’. In truth no successful performance could be anything but ‘dramatic’; Bach has hardwired drama into the work’s DNA. But apparently the ‘visionary concept’ included the protagonists singing their reported speech directly to each other (off copy), and members of the choir mingling among the audience for the crowd scenes. Perhaps a DVD rather than CD release might have been appropriate, although a snatch of video on the ensemble’s website suggests something decidedly less ambitious than Peter Sellars’s ‘ritualisation’ of the John and Matthew Passions for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Judged purely as an audio experience, Jeannette Sorrell’s direction certainly produces a lively account, her fleet tempos rarely sounding rushed, even if they can momentarily leave singers challenged. And the singing is the chief glory of the set: Nicholas Phan is a personable Evangelist who also negotiates the jagged perils of ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with no nonsense, while Jesse Blumberg’s Jesus is quietly authoritative. Soprano Amanda Forsythe and baritone Christian Immler acquit themselves with distinction in the arias, and the 20-plus chorus is impeccably disciplined and incisive.

The opening ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’, however, flags up a few intrusive stylistic mannerisms. Sorrell is not averse to indulgent rallentandos; and the dynamic shading can be a touch over-manicured. John Eliot Gardiner’s live 2011 release with similar choral forces lives in the moment more vividly; while, for the ultimate ‘ visionary concept’, the Dunedin Consort’s liturgical reconstruction remains revelatory.

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Paul Riley