on 10 December 2000
Alongside the St Matthew Passion,Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and forces bring to us a performance that is both dramatic and sublime in a work of such profundity. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is as near perfect an Evangelist as one could hope for with his innate sense of phrasing and articulation. At no time does the drama flag untill those beautiful moments of reflection in the Ariosos and Arias, sung with such purity of tone by all. I would especially mention Argenta's distinct timbre and Mullers sublime rendition of'Erwage, wie sein....'. The English baroque soloists play with there usual flare and prescision giving us the now familiar grainy but warm glow of period instrument sound.No two arias are scored for the same instrumentation giving this band the opportunity to show their skill in the obliggato use of Oboe da caccia,lute and viola da gamba to mention but a few and the clean confident ensemble input of the strings carefully supporting all.Listen for the skilfull dancing of the flute above the chorus in its many outbursts throughout the drama. And at the very core of this performance is the Monteverdi Choir,who sing with such power and style. At no time do we think the music too much for this team as they negotiate the rapid outbursts of the crowd calling for Christ to be crucified or to cast lots for His cloak rather than divide it. Such singing confirms this choir to be amongst the very finest in the world today. All of which is held together in masterly fashion under the sharp direction of Sir John and brought to a thrilling final chorale with each verse building in intensity and volume. A true 'Desert Island' performance, Bravo!!
on 21 August 2011
I think that Gardiner is one of the most interesting conductors today. He is always reliable, and often he creates exceptional recordings.
This is one of the exceptional ones. Gardiner makes the music flow in a completely natural stream. You can hear every layer and every idea is fully integrated into the whole.
The orchestra (English Baroque Soloists) is reaching highest possible level.
The singers are the best - especially Rolfe-Johnson and Chance. Michael Chance is singing "Es ist vollbracht" in a way that makes time stop.
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.
on 29 June 2011
John Eliot Gardiner's recording of the St John Passion is profoundly moving in its drama and intensity. The Evangelist is Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and this role has surely never been bettered in sensitivity, expression and beauty. The other soloists also sing with agility and conviction. The sublime opening chorus sets the scene. From then on, the listener is drawn into the passion and sorrows of the Easter story, culiminating in the final chorale where the believer is lovingly invited, to gently repose until Judgement Day and awake with joy at the resurrection. I loved it.
on 17 September 2013
I like to think that this is how this Passion might have sounded at its earliest performance: strings "scrawny" by our standards, a small chorus, singing that doesn't sound virtuostic (remembering that Bach's soloists were likely choristers). But Gardiner creates an atmosphere that balances drama and devotion perfectly, and much credit must go to the Chorus and to the Evangelist, Anthony Rolfe Johnston. Rolfe Johnson is a highly accomplished singer, but here (surely at Gardiner's request) he eschews virtuosity and sounds light-voiced and human, and the same is true of the other soloists -- they don't fill out their lines with "big" sound: it's all human-scaled and the more moving for that. Cornelius Hauptmann is an anguished and torn Pilate -- a very moving assumption -- Varcoe a direct and unfussy Jesus. The Chorus is splendid -- just listen to the difference in "Affekt" between the final chorale in Part 1 and the first in Part 2 -- one follows directly on the other, so you can't avoid the comparison. The dramatic aptness of both is distinctive and without the chorus sounding highly virtuostic at either time. Throughout the Chorales are most beautifully done, and the choral interjections in the recitative passages -- "Crucify Him!"etc. -- are riveting. The sound is very good -- the venue was All Saints Church, Tooting -- and the combination of clarity (you can easily distinguish the choral lines), airiness, and balance (voices in relation to orchestra), with no loss of a sense of human-scaled reverence is winning. Just a great recording.