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.
Among traditional modern-instrument versions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Wolfgang Gönnenwein’s 1968 recording has a lot to offer. Not least is the excellent choral singing from top to bottom. The texts are always clear, and the pacing for the chorales is governed by the story’s dramatic unfolding. You can’t help but be hooked by Evangelist Theo Altmeyer’s warm tone and vivid portrayal, complemented by Franz Crass’ sonorous, touching Jesus. What a joy it is to hear Teresa Zylis-Gara, Julia Hamari, and Hermann Prey at the peak of their respective powers. Tenor Nicolai Gedda is heard to better advantage with Gönnenwein than in Otto Klemperer’s recording, where he struggled with that conductor’s craggy tempos. The orchestra plays beautifully, and the engineering does full justice to Bach’s antiphonal interplay. All the recitatives are accompanied by rather dutiful chordal backing from the organ and cello (Bach adds a “halo” of strings, of course, whenever Jesus opens his mouth). A harpsichordist with a bent for improvisation would have spruced up the texture. Lovers of great Bach singing, however, will treasure this release.(Jed Distler)