J.S. Bach's Johannes-Passion, or St. John Passion, BWV 245 – one of just two surviving Bach Passion works out of an original four or five – is, simply put, a headache for editors and performers wishing to recreate the authentic, stamped-and-approved original work. There is no such beast: the work was performed at least four times during Bach's lifetime, and for each new presentation he overhauled the music, adding numbers, deleting numbers, changing numbers, so that today we really have four different St. John Passions through which to pick and choose our way. Happily enough, however, Bach misses the mark in not a single one of those numbers, and the director can hardly go wrong selecting from such a wealth of fine material. The St. John Passion was first heard on April 7, 1724 (Good Friday), and then reproduced for Leipzig churchgoers in 1725, sometime in the early 1730s (perhaps 1732), and then again in 1749. Perhaps in part because of its sometimes bewildering compositional history and the fact that its texts were not really conceived as a single entity (Bach seems to have arranged the texts himself from a number of disparate sources, and sometimes his efforts – which seem to have been hasty ones – are not altogether graceful), the St. John Passion has never been a sweepingly popular work like the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244. But it is a monumental work that must have made quite an impression indeed at its first performance, early on in Bach's tenure as Cantor of Leipzig.
As one of the 20th century's most acclaimed Bach interpreters, Karl Richter devotes his expertise to this monumental epic of Christ's final hours, tapping the power of Bach's rich choral writing for a rendering of startling immediacy - for the first time on DVD.
The music of Bach's 'St. John Passion', which the composer wrote for Holy Week in 1724 immediately after his appointment as cantor of St Thomas's Church in Leipzig, still retains all its freshness and vitality nearly 300 years later, and is a true Baroque delight. The two main choruses Herr, unser Herrscher and Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine form the beginning and culmination of a large-scale orchestral and vocal structure in which Bach reveals his absolute mastery of polyphony. Inwardly reflective chorales are as much interwoven into the events of the Passion as the haunting arias which comment on the biblical texts of the Gospel of St John. Throughout this solemn Passion oratorio, there is a constant emphasis on Baroque musical magnificence. What makes this live recording of the concert version of March 7, 2015 in the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz so special? The fresh voices of the young and excellent vocal soloists, the regularly praised "astonishing three-dimensionality" and "crystalline clarity" of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks under the direction of Peter Dijkstra and, of course, the renowned period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln.
Most of us come to the Saint John Passion knowing the Saint Matthew Passion first. The bigger and more elaborate Saint Matthew, which came along three, or possibly five years later (there is controversy about the date), has tended to cast a shadow in which the earlier work is swallowed up, and this has been so ever since Mendelssohn's Saint Matthew performance in 1829 marked the beginning of the public rediscovery of J.S. Bach. (The professionals had never forgotten.) But if the Saint John is smaller in scale than the Saint Matthew, it is hardly the lesser work in quality, though it would of course be silly to claim that the master of the Saint Matthew Passion had not learned from the experience of setting Saint John. But the most interesting differences between these two towering attestations of faith are differences in intention. Read Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19, and you get four tellings of the last days in the life of Jesus that differ in tone, emphasis, and detail…
Founded in 1972 at the suggestion of Deutsche Harmonia Mundi and led since its inception by Dutch violinist turned conductor Sigiswald Kuijken, La Petite Bande is surely among the finest of early music orchestras with a discography ranging from Lully through Mozart. Among the group's most successful projects, however, have been recordings of Bach's sacred works, particularly the 1985 Mass in B minor and this 1987 St. John Passion. Both are superbly performed with excellent solo and choral singing and outstanding orchestral playing, but both are distinctly dissimilar in tone and effect…
Philippe Herreweghe uses the second of Bach's four versions of the St. John Passion, the one from 1725, which substitutes some of the arias and the opening chorus, along with lesser changes. The result is somewhat more dramatic than the standard version, which Herreweghe recorded previously. Those familiar with the conductor's work will find his usual warmth, making the most of the lyric moments, but they'll also find greater sensitivity to rhythmic and dramatic thrust and a generally livelier approach. The singers are uniformly fine. Padmore is an unusually effective Evangelist, projecting the drama without undue overacting. Many will want this for Andreas Scholl's countertenor solos, which are first-rate, but the magnificent "Es ist vollbracht" will disappoint those familiar with the greater depth of renditions by contraltos like Maureen Forrester and Janet Baker. Bright-voiced soprano Sibylla Rubens is another attraction, singing with fervor, and the orchestra and chorus of the Collegium Vocale Ghent are outstanding. This attractively packaged set goes to the head of the class. –Dan Davis
Bach’s St. John Passion with a star-studded lineup of soprano Johennette Zomer, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Klaus Mertens, conducted by Ton Koopman, was bound to be—and indeed was—an enjoyable affair. A little over two years ago the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performed the B-minor Mass with him, now they tackled the ‘smaller’ Passion…
Hermann Max came to the fore in the first place with the Rheinische Kantorei and the Baroque Orchestra Das Kleine Konzert through a series of productions for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk. He is considered as one of the principal researchers and developers of the HIP, which has become the prevailing approach to the performance of early music today. The ideals that guided him in directing his choir are based on the Italian tradition: a bright sound, precise diction, secure intonation, transparency and lightness.
In the history of Bach’s musical legacy, the St John Passion has always stood in the shadow of the St Matthew Passion. The repercussions of the first revival of the St Matthew after Bach’s death, which took place in Berlin under the direction of the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, decisively contributed to gaining it a unique position. But at the same time the great success of the St Matthew aroused a wider interest in Bach’s large-scale vocal works that initially benefited the St John Passion above all.
By Charles Johnston