René Jacobs leads JS Bach’s St John Passion

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Sunhae Im (soprano), Benno Schachtner (alto), Werner Güra, Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor), Johannes Weisser (bass); RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
CATALOGUE NO: Harmonia Mundi HMC 802236.37

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Complete clarity of sound and purpose distinguish René Jacobs’s recording of the St John Passion, presented here in its 1724 version, with Bach’s 1725 revisions (including the Telemann-like tenor aria ‘Zerschmettert mich’) as an appendix. Enter a code on the label’s website and you can download a complete performance of the later version, while the DVD of Uli Aumüller’s 50-minute documentary on Jacobs in rehearsal, performance and the recording studio, also included with the discs, is invaluable to understanding how he has approached the more familiar musical narrative.

Two factors dominate this performance. First, how the musicians are deployed: woodwind are placed in front of the strings, allowing for exceptional detail in the turba choruses, while the RIAS Kammerchor is divided into two units of 16 voices. The soloists sing throughout, sometimes as a quartet, sometimes with the ripieno choir, affording tonal unity across the arc of the drama. The second factor is conceptual, involving close study of Bach’s theology and poetic imagery. Jacobs’s tempos are fleet and the attack is clean and tender. Evangelist Werner Güra sings with authority. The lute and gamba soloists become part of the continuo, and I was startled by the brightness of the harpsichord in ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ and the dirty buzz of a contrabassoon in ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige!’. Despite these surprises, there is no hint of the theatricality typical of Jacobs’s opera recordings, and the chorales are most notable for their weight and solemnity.

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Anna Picard