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Bach: St John Passion
Format: Audio CDChange
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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2001
If you are approaching Bach's wonderful Passion settings for the first time,you could not do yourself a bigger favour than to start your voyage of exploration with this quite lovely English language performance of the St.John.Almost nothing is lost in the translation from the German,and indeed this version was so carefully honed through successive performances,that at times it almost seems as though Bach had our native tongue in mind from the very start.
The Decca sound is well up to the standard of the period (1971) and aside from some bumps and thumps in the long opening chorus,it's almost ideally warm and full-bodied.
The musical forces involved are beyond my criticism:Benjamin Britten conducts with the authority and innate genius you would naturally expect,whilst the vocal soloists compete with each other to see who can most astound and beguile your ears next.Highlights include Heather Harper's stunning,"I'll follow thee also";Alfreda Hodgson's tear-jerking,"To release me from this prison";Robert Tear's tragic depiction of Peter's remorse after the denial of his friend,master and God,"Ah! take flight away from Human sight" and the magical,"Look yonder,O my soul" from the Bass John Shirley-Quirk.This last aria is Bach's meditiation on the supreme awfulness of the scourging of Jesus,and there are few more poignant or heart-rending moments in all music.J.S-Q gives it his most tender treatment and the ECO give him spine-tinglingly reverential support.
The crucial Choral element is in the safe collective hands of the assured Wandsworth School Boys' Choir under Russell Burgess.They are suitably indignantly incandescent in,"Ah! who would dare to smite thee ?",and can also plumb the depths of pity in places such as,"Peter,who denied his Lord".
So,you have an excellent recording (bearing in mind that first chorus caveat) of an indispensable masterwork (sans language barrier);distinguished conductor;peerless soloists;brilliant orchestra and fabulous choir.What more do you need to know ? If you can log off without adding this treasure to your basket or at least resolving to come back at the very next opportunity,I'll be most astonished at your powers of self-denial,and even more amazed that you would pass up the opportunity to experience a wonder that transcends ordinary music as much Heaven transcends the Earth.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 September 2013
This recording was highly praised when it first appeared, but it hasn't worn too well. It all sounds a bit staid, and the sound is thick. The chorus is warm, but their sound too is heavy, and the chorales are sluggish. The soloists are fine; Gwynne Howell is a big-voiced Jesus, and Heather Harper, a great singer, is secure, although she sings her big aria rather straight -- is it possible that these singers might have been more familiar expressively with a German text? The major drawback, though, is Pears's Evangelist. He's sweet and expressive, but the voice is very uneven, and the sustained notes wobble distinctly. Compared with Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Gardiner's set (or even Haefliger, on the old Richter set), Pears does not seem particularly effective. The Chorus and the Evangelist are the heart of the St. John Passion, and it's the limitations with both that make this set perhaps less than it could have been. Britten's conducting -- in the days before the period instrument movement really took off -- is certainly efficient, but it doesn't seem all that interesting to me. I have to admit, though, that I don't much like another much-praised set: the Klemperer St. Matthew.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 August 2013
Ever since i first fell in love with this piece of music i have longed to hear it sung in english in the hope that it would add to my enjoyment, and thanks to the excellent, poetic Pears/Holst translation i can honestly confirm that there is a distinct pleasure in hearing this passion story in my own language.
My other copy of this work is the J.E. Gardiner version, which sounds better, with more clarity and space in the production, and this has coloured my rating of this version to just 4 stars.
I just wish that Gardiner would do the same and add english versions to his own canon.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2001
In so-justifiably handing out plaudits for this vigorous, vivid, utterly involving performance of Bach's St John Passion, the previous reviewer unaccountably fails to single out the soloist of whom we hear most in it, namely, Peter Pears (arguably the greatest English tenor of the twentieth century).
Let it be noted, therefore, that the control, variety and seemingly-effortless expressiveness that Pears brings to the singing of the Narrator warrants the utmost praise. It is difficult to imagine that it has ever been done as well, or will ever be done better.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 13 January 2007
The Penguin guide accords this set a Rosette, and previous reviewers on amazon have been very positive. However, I would counsel caution before buying. I agree with the reviewer who mentions intonation problems with the boys choir. More generally, with the reverberant acoustic and large forces, in many contrapuntal choral passages the different musical lines become obscured and muddied - it becomes impossible to hear even a distinct pitch, let alone words, when there are fast semi-quaver's etc.

Peter Pears, of course, divides tastes - a love or loathe kind of tenor. Personally I'm a fan, and his contribution is strong. The biggest problem with this set is the other solo tenor, Robert Tear. Tear has the worst kind of wobbly wide-vibratoed tone - totally unsuited to Bach and a huge minus point for this recording.

If you are keen to hear the St John Passion in english there is much to like about this recording. Britten's conducting is lively, as in his Brandenburg concerti, and Heather Harper sings beautifully though in an "inauthentic", operatic style. But I would definitely advise against buying this as one's first/only recording of the work. Gardiner's or Suzuki's performances are both in German and on "period instruments", but it is not for those reasons that they are far preferable to Britten. They are both musically/artistically far superior - the choral work is cleanly articulated, precise and IN TUNE, the soloists are all much easier on the ear, and the overall effect is both more exciting and more sonically beautiful, not to mention better recorded.
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I wish I had read the reviews before I purchased this item. Its in "ENGLISH". Call me a traditionalist but it was written in German so I prefer to hear it in German.
Its a pleasant enough recording but for me it lacks the passion (excuse the pun) of some other performances such as J.E. Gardiner version, which sounds better to me as its has more clarity and depth in the production.
At the end of the day its about personal taste and your own expectations of what you think the peice of music should sound like.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2014
Wonderful music, although they have tampered with the libretto and the final chorus loses its impact because of it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 22 April 2014
What a great piece and nice to have a recording in English, however the choir's tuning could do with improvement.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 2013
My husband was delighted with this gift and it added to his collection of choral CDs. He's a fan of JS Bach
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2012
This is a recording the British music industry should be proud of. Bach became British thanks to the translation of the text by Pears/Holst, that climbs the same poetic and emotional heights of the original German (really a difficult thing to accomplish). The music is just marvellous, the soloists all first-rate (although we miss Bernanda Fink, who has blown all the other contraltos of the past century away)
the conducting firm, the singing boys as good as any Oxbridge consort, the ECO brilliant. (the mens' voices are anonymous, no credit is given to them in case or booklet; I suspect the culprits, or better heroes I'd say, must have been the choir associated to the ECO. This mistake of the production team is just unbelievable!) No wonder this recording found its way into the Penguin Guide. There's only one slight technical problem with the balance on the first chorus, those long bass pedals just were too much for the technicians to control. But the emotion of the performance is such that those shortcomings are soon overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and the splendid singing and playing.
Just sublime.
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