JS Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245

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LABELS: Glossa
WORKS: St John Passion, BWV 245
PERFORMER: Markus Schäfer (Evangelist), Thomas Oliemans (Jesus); Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Michael Chance (alto), Marcel Beekman (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass); Capella Amsterdam; Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Frans Brüggen

In Frans Brüggen’s 1992 recording of the St John Passion – also with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century – the opening choral ‘Herr’ sounds rather like a solicitous waiter gently trying to waken an elderly diner who’s fallen asleep between courses. Hushed and intimate, the tone seems completely to contradict the inherent turbulence and gravitas of that protean first chorus, and yet, nearly 20 years on, Brüggen’s approach isn’t so radically different. Here, again, is a St John where musical imperatives tend to take precedence over dramatic ones. 
Bidding farewell to Bach’s improbable 1749 contra bassoon addition to the score, Brüggen bases this performance on the 1724 original version – retaining noticeably brisk tempos for the concluding chorus and chorale as though already party to the message of Easter. In the baying crowd scenes however, Cappella Amsterdam usually summons up less venom and urgency than the Netherlands Chamber Choir ‘class of ’92’, even if there’s an infectious frisson of gambling fever as the lots are cast for the garment. 
Markus Schäfer’s Evangelist is commanding if occasionally a touch stiff, and the reliable Peter Kooij bestrides both sets, but tenor Marcel Beekman is no match for Christoph Prégardien’s peerless ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ in the earlier recording. Beyond praise though is Carolyn Sampson whose two arias are utterly spell-binding, and at an almost dangerously slow tempo, the alto and gamba ‘Es ist vollbracht’ entwinings of Michael Chance and Rainer Zipperling hang plangently in the air, an epiphany of unassuageable grief. Brüggen ’92 is perhaps the better vintage; but Sampson is in a class of her own. Paul Riley