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A Fine Budget-Priced 'St. John Passion'
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.