Bach: St John's Passion - Stephen Cleobury
Kings College KGS0018 (2 discs)
Classical - Vocal
Bach: St John's Passion
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Neal Davies (bass)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Ed Lyon (tenor)
The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
Review by Graham Williams - March 29, 2017
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge are building a most impressive discography on their own label, one that spans 400 years of liturgical music in many styles and includes works by Gabrieli. Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé. Their recorded performances are further enhanced by the use of high resolution audio technology. On this latest release they are conducted by Stephen Cleobury who has guided and nurtured this choir for the past 25 years.
This recording of Bach's St. John Passion is taken from two live performances of the work given on 21st and 22nd March 2016 in the Chapel of King's College whose very special acoustic is beautifully recreated on this hybrid multi-channel SACD (24-bit / 96kHz) and thankfully there is no trace whatsoever of an audience presence.
Stephen Cleobury has chosen to perform the Passion in Bach's original version of 1724, prepared for the composer's first Holy Week as cantor in Leipzig, rather than his final version of 1749 used by some interpreters. His judiciously chosen tempi ensure that the momentum and dramatic thrust of the music is constantly maintained yet is never driven so hard that the beauty and expressiveness of the many sublime arias are compromised.
The line-up of soloists for this recording could hardly be improved upon.
The Evangelist of James Gilchrist is outstanding. He brings vivid characterisation to the narrative and, thanks to the bright appealing quality of his voice and commendably clear diction, holds one's attention throughout. Neal Davies is a commanding Christus who brings his considerable operatic experience to this role and his utterances are always beautifully judged and firmly delivered.
Iestyn Davies confirms his reputation as one of today's finest counter tenors with his impeccable singing of the alto arias. The second of these, “Es ist vollbracht”, is both moving and, in the central florid passage, joyfully triumphant. The expressive viola da gamba playing of Liam Byrne is in perfect accord with Davies's lovely voice.
Roderick Williams delivers a confident account of the florid bass aria “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” and his Pilatus is marked with both dignity and restraint. Sophie Bevan gives an entrancing account of the two soprano arias, her bright fresh voice making an effective contrast with Lisa Beznosiuk's soft toned flute obbligato.
The words of the chorus are occasionally blurred by the reverberant acoustic of the Chapel but this is a minor criticism when compared with the magnificent sound made by the young choristers in the Choir. As one might expect the vastly experienced musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music provide excellent support with eloquent playing of the various obbligatos and, at a strength of 21 instrumentalists, they provide a full rich sound, but one that never overpowers the chorus.
The performance lasts 109'32” thus necessitating dividing the work between the two SACDs. Here the break between the two discs comes in Part II and provides a moment of reflection after Ed Lyons's ardent singing of the taxing tenor aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”. Some recordings place the shorter Part I on the first disc and the longer Part II the on the second – surely the best solution?
The liner booklet provides full German / English texts, biographical details of the performers and informative notes on the work by Stephen Rose.
The countless admirer's of King's College Choir will be delighted with this recording that is in every respect worthy to stand among the finest versions of this much recorded Passion.
Copyright © 2017 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net