The St John Passion of Bach seems always to have been slightly in the shadow of the St Matthew. This is not to be wondered at, I suppose, since nearly everything in the whole of music is somewhat overshadowed by that mighty composition. Nevertheless to my own way of thinking the relative position of the St John is not an unfair one, because full though it is of marvellous music its text is less suited to Bach's particular genius. The plainchant narrative of the Passion secundum Joannem is the one I knew as a boy, and if the priest had a good voice it was a marvellous musical experience in its own right. Particularly in its later stages, it consists mainly of narration by the Evangelist punctuated by `turbae' or crowd choruses, plus of course the last words of the Saviour Himself. There is not a lot of scope for reflective digressions, and that is fine in a Catholic Good Friday service, but it is precisely those pietistic interludes that make the St Matthew Passion what it amounts to. Everything Bach does is of the highest quality obviously, but after his thorough, methodical and indeed effective turbae one just has to think of `He trusted in God' from the Messiah to appreciate the difference between him and a contemporary with a genuine innate sense of drama.
As in the cantatas also, the truly wonderful things here are the arias and ariosos, together with those choruses that are not simply congregational chorales. They get rarer as the work proceeds, but it would be quite arguable to maintain that `Es ist vollbracht' `Zerfliesse' and the great `Ruht wohl' chorus just before the concluding chorale are the very finest things in the entire work. They are to Bach's invariable scheme, a scheme that nevertheless seems infinite in its variety, with an instrumental obbligato and indeed a vocal line that itself often seems instrumentally inspired. The difficult vocal lines call for singing of the highest quality, and indeed the instrumental parts themselves can often be demanding. The music may be difficult, but the criteria for judging a performance are very simple - do these performers understand the musical idiom, are they sensitive to the utter greatness of what they are performing, and are they up to it all technically?
This account dates from 1986. It is of the `authentic' school as regards the instruments used, the vocal style and a general tendency towards brisk tempi. By 1986 the authentic movement had relaxed a bit and speed records were thankfully no longer in vogue. `Es ist vollbracht' for one is downright slow here, to its entire benefit. As a rule we could rely on the authentic performers to be technically proficient even if occasionally they seemed a touch mechanical, but in general where Gardiner is handling the overall direction I have usually found that we can rely on him in every respect. That is what I find here. The great opening chorus is full of majesty and solemnity, and the chorus throughout bring out what drama there is to bring out in the turbae. The vocal soloists are admirable in my opinion. The women don't have a whole lot to do, but what they have they do well, and I commend in particular the ethereal account of `Zerfliesse' from Nancy Argenta. Whenever the cast includes a male alto I am slightly apprehensive, but this time the countertenor is Michael Chance, whose work I have come to admire on account of the strength of his tone, and all is well here. The other male vocal soloists strike me as admirable too. In particular the two basses -- the Christus of Stephen Varcoe and the Pilate of Cornelius Hauptmann (who also takes the non-character bass solos) are extremely mellifluous and easy on the ear. Instrumentally I have no complaints or reservations either, and it is satisfying to see the instrumental performers named in the liner, in accordance with the admirable custom in Archiv sets.
The recording seems to have been digital from the start, and while I would not call it spectacular I don't require it to be spectacular either. It suits me fine as I find it. The liner booklet is a very good one, with an informative and helpful essay in parted tongues as it were of German English French and Italian, and of course the full sung text. By now I am fully inured with the `authentic' approach, I am gradually collecting Gardiner's great `cantata pilgrimage' from the year 2000, and so to that extent I am on home ground with this performance. At the time of posting this notice I am not yet minded to go back to my revered Munchinger account of the St Matthew Passion, which is in a `semi-authentic' mode, considered quite progressive in its time. How my own taste may have developed since I gave it its last hearing I shall not know until I do, but I hope my tastes have remained catholic enough to enjoy Lutheran music differently approached at different stages of our musical culture. One way or another, I think my collection will benefit from including both schools, and perhaps yours will also.