Stephen Cleobury conducts JS Bach’s St John Passion

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: King’s College
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: St John Passion
PERFORMER: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James Gilchrist, Ed Lyon (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Neal Davies (bass); Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury
CATALOGUE NO: KGS 0018 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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It’s roughly a decade since the choir of King’s College, Cambridge last released an account of Bach’s 1724 St John Passion. More recently they recorded its 1725 reconfiguration; this one, reverting to the original version and enjoying the benefits of hybrid SACD, preserves live performances given as part of last year’s Easter at King’s Festival. With alumnus James Gilchrist as a supple Evangelist, not to mention trenchant instrumental support from the Cambridge-based Academy of Ancient Music, it’s something of a family affair.

A choir comprising young male singers with boy sopranos is, of course, exactly what Bach had at his disposal in Leipzig where the St John Passion was first heard, but it doesn’t necessarily give director Stephen Cleobury a head start over rival versions. A certain King’s smoothness sometimes softens the visceral qualities of the unfolding drama, and the chorales can sound like hymn interludes rather than pertinent theological commentary. For the arias, however, Cleobury has assembled an unassailable team of soloists, whose powerful insights gild Neal Davies’s Jesus, a characterisation of immense presence and authority.

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Paul Riley