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4.4 out of 5 stars
Bach, J.S.: St. John Passion
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on 15 December 2003
Naxos doesn't usually record large works twice, but this is their second St. John Passion, the earlier one being by the Baroque Scholars and a fine one. This one has the unusual feature of being almost entirely a product of the music scholars of New College, Oxford. The choir is the New College Choir (SATB 14,4,4,5), using boy trebles and altos (as Bach did at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig). The soloists are all graduates or current members of the the college. The instrumentalists, using historically accurate instruments and performance practice, is the so-called 'Collegium Novum' (Latin for 'New College,' get it?), an ad-hoc group led by the well-known baroque violinist Alison Bury and put together for this recording, so it could be called, I suppose, the 'New New College.' The conductor is Edward Higginbottom, who has been director of the Choir since the mid-1970s.
One might think, since this is something of a special performance, gathering together current and 'old boy' singers, that it was something of a vanity project, but in fact it holds its own with other HIP performances of Bach's Johannespassion. It is sung in German and the booklet provides a German-English text. The Evangelist is sung by the fine tenor James Gilchrist (a treble in the Choir in the 1970s). Christ is sung by bass John Bernays (New College 1986-1990) and Pilate by bass Eamonn Dougan (New College 1993-1996). The other soloists are the noted countertenor James Bowman (boy alto 1960s), tenor Matthew Beale (1993-1996), bass Colin Baldy (a vocal coach at New College in the 1990s). The soprano soloist is a remarkable treble currently in the New College Choir, Joe Littlewood. He deserves special mention because of his intelligent musicality and sweet, true voice.
Higginbottom writes a few sentences to explain his decision to use boy trebles and altos, unlike some otherwise HIP performances, and goes on to defend his use of more than one string player per part, the latter being quite a trend in Bach recordings, witness the fine recent St. Matthew Passion conducted by Paul McCreesh. He notes that Bach had access to ripienists, saying 'provided Bach's counterpoint is clear, there can be no objection.' I tend to agree. I like the one-to-a-part performances I've heard, but I also am old enough to still love an occasional wallow in the old Richter performances of this and similar pieces. As far as I'm concerned, Bach is Bach and what matters is the musicality of the performance. On that account, this recording has no worries. It is presented as a dramatic whole, which is certainly appropriate since the Johannespassion is a sacred opera in all but name. The tempi are well-judged, the singers good, the instrumentalists (including continuo players cellist David Watkin and organist Ryan Wiggleworth) alert and flexible. Overall the style is somewhat light except for the dramatic points, as in the turba choruses.
This is a fine budget-priced St. John Passion and although there are other wonderful recordings out there (including my old standby in English with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears) it can more than stand on its own merits. The sound is just a smidgen less than the best available, with some minor distortion in loud choral passages.
Scott Morrison
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on 18 January 2009
There is a freshness about this recording that will excite many of those for whom the work is familiar, even routine. Some of the smaller parts have been given to less than perfect singers, but even this adds to the natural quality, restoring the work to the realm of `real' music as opposed to `one of the standards'. Higginbottom's treatment is vibrant and lyrical, really thrilling in places, and the soloists, particularly James Bowman, give performances that are quite perfect. Budget this recoding may be, but it is also unstinting in its quality.
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on 7 September 2003
This recording is something of a 'family' project: all the soloists have an association with New College Choir. Collegium Novum, which is of course Latin for New College, is the instrumental ensemble formed especially for this recording. Some of this group also have associations with New College, for example Ryan Wigglesworth, the organ continuo.
James Gilchrist (a New College chorister in the 1970s) is impressive as the Evangelist: vibrato is not used as a standard technique to be applied to every note, but as a special expressive device. His expression overall, combined with his obvious musical rapport with the orchestra, is eye-watering in many places, and the recitative Gilchrist performs is the shining star of this recording. The perfect example is 'Und siehe da der Vorhang in Tempel zerriß' ('And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two'): the sheer violence and terror of Bach's music itself were surely not matched until the D minor return of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni; yet Gilchrist infuses it with such violent energy that the listener both wants to hear it again and simultaneously cannot bring themself to do so.
The period instruments are handled excellently by Collegium Novum. The cellos and basses are worth a special mention for the passages in which they play together; the balance of the two instruments is perfect throughout, presenting a bass line which is neither too heavy nor too light.
The German pronunciation of the soloists and of the choir is generally excellent through the whole 100 minutes of this recording. In those places where it is lacking, it is almost always a confusion between 'u' with and without umlaut (ü), which, incidentally, is continued in the sleeve notes with a persistent misspelling of 'Juden' (Jews) as 'Jüden'!
The recording succeeds in being faithful to both the musical text and the verbal text of the Passion, giving it an emotional quality which oscillates between raw and meditative: overall, a truly excellent recording.
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on 14 March 2008
I have listened to many recordings of the St John Passion over the years but I must say that I found this one particularly moving. As somewhat of a musical oddity (Higginbottom explains his motivation in his sleeve notes), it is interesting in itself. However, the small scale forces and the fact that the top line is sung by boys, lends a wonderful clarity to the whole result. The U umlaut verses U without umlaut in the word "Juden" debate occupies huge amounts of time when people perform this work. Germans nowadays most definitely do not use the umlaut (indeed, friends of mine hadn't even realised that it once possessed an umlaut).I tend to think that it should be used as Bach intended and there is indeed some confusion at times in this aspect of the text. However this is a small blemish in an overall exciting performance. I like all the soloists and the disc contains a particularly sensitive rendition of "Betrachte meine Seel" sung by the baritone, Colin Baldy.
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on 22 June 2015
Good CD Quickly delivered
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on 8 August 2016
Great choir, great music
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on 28 May 2003
A beautiful, sensitive and authentic rendition of this work, using only male voices and the period instruments of the Collegium Musicum. Well worth getting as a definitive version of this Passion - and excellent value for two CDs and a comprehensive insert including the full text.
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on 1 May 2014
Diapason awarded "5 tuning forks" (5 stars) to this recording. The Penquin "3 rosettes" and considers it an essential recording for building a library. In certan aspects of clarity, intensity and purity of sound (boy trebles) it rivals the superb Susuki recording which is the definitive recording to date of this masterpiece. The choruses are splendid. Highly recommended.
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on 14 May 2009
This is an exceptionally fine performance and recording of the Bach St John Passion. I haven't heard better.
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on 7 May 2013
A wonderful performance by the choir.
Equaling Harnoncourt's first recording of the
St Mathew passion. Perhaps the same team should attempt the St Mark passion.
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