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Bach: Johannespassion - Max

Bach: Johannespassion - Max

CPO  777 091-2 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Bach: St. John Passion (adapt. Schumann)

Veronika Winter
Elisabeth Scholl
Gerhild Romberger
Jan Kobow
Ekkehard Abele
Clemens Heidrich
Rheinische Kantorei
Das Kleine Konzert
Hermann Max (conductor)


Bach from Schumann’s Perspective

Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829 was the first new presentation of this work in the nineteenth century. It once again made Bach a known quantity in the larger music world, and Mendelssohn’s friends Robert and Clara Schumann responded eagerly and enthusiastically to this rediscovery. Bach’s music came to occupy more of a central position for Schumann than for Mendelssohn. As far as Bach’s passions were concerned, Schumann preferred the St. John Passion, with which Mendelssohn never occupied himself. When Schumann was offered the post of music director in Duesseldorf in 1850, his first main project was to perform the St. John Passion, which had never been presented there, in April 1851: »It is much bolder, more powerful, and more poetic than the St. Matthew. This one seems to me not to be free of diffuseness and to be exceedingly long, but the other – how compact, how thoroughly genial, and of what art!« Like Mendelssohn, Schumann adapted Bach’s musical language to his own times, replaced instruments that were no longer in use, and orchestrated the original anew – together with other changes. Hermann Max has now undertaken a reconstruction of this remarkable artistic assimilation.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 24, 2015

The importance of this already some time ago published recording lies primarily in the fact that it is an arrangement by Robert Schumann of which there is -as far as I know- no other recording available. Whoever wants to know how Bach’s St. John’s Passion has been reworked by him has no other choice than this one. A ”must” for collectors, one might say. But there is more.

Mendelssohn’s public performance of Bach’s St. Matthew passion in 1829 in Berlin, introduced by him as a ‘re-discovery’, was part of the revival of Bach’s music in the middle of the 19th century. After having taken up Bach’s position as Cantor at the Sankt Thomaskirche in Leipzig a revised version followed in 1841, (The world premiere of which has been recorded on RBCD by Christoph Spering /Das Neue Orchester/ Chorus Musicus for Opus 111).

Many scholars devoted in those days their time to the subject. Studies appeared, notably comparing Bach’s passions. St Matthew was generally seen as the better one. Mendelssohn never devoted time to the other ‘minor’ St. John’s. A public performance in 1933 by Rungenhagen drew rather mixed opinions.

Schumann, however, did take interest in the smaller of the two, using hymns and choruses from the St. Johns Passion for his ‘Gemischtem Chorsangverein’ (mixed coral society) in Dresden. When he became music director in Dusseldorf he immediately set himself to the reworking of St. John’s, to be performed on Palm Sunday of 1851.

In order to bring it closer to the musical taste of the day, part of his project was a near complete make-over as far as the orchestra was concerned. He added instruments like clarinets and trumpets to beef up the orchestral sound and to be able to underline important moments in St. John’s dramatic story. Replacing, furthermore, no longer available instruments like the viola da Gamba, oboe da Caccia and oboe d'Amore with their modern congeners. He also opted for a forte piano to replace the continuo. It may be clear that in doing so the overall sound had become distinctively different from what we are used to in its original format. Unlike Mendelssohn, he did not leave out major parts of the text and the music. He, however, assigned a soprano to sing a number of tenor arias. Most probably out of necessity by lack of tenors capable of singing those parts.

Getting into the musical content of the recording: Max uses an orchestra of 8/8/4/3/2 strings 2 each of flutes/oboes/clarinets/bassoons/trumpets, similar to the professional orchestra Schumann had at his disposal, and, of course, the required forte piano. All of them competent and accomplished musicians, playing on modern instruments but nonetheless with historic hindsight. The tempi are moderate, almost ‘old fashioned’ in our time.

The choices Schumann made as a result of his orchestral set-up have a remarkable effect, notably in the accompaniment of the arias. ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (it is accomplished) is surprisingly naturally shaded through the use of a solo viola and low strings; and the impact of the section ‘Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht’ (The hero of Judah triumphs with might) is brilliantly intensified by the two trumpets. This alto aria (Gerhild Romberger) is for me one of the highlights of Herman Max’s rendition.

The Evangelist, Jan Kobow, too, is convincing, but on the whole the cast of solo singers is not quite up to the standard we have by now become used to with the availability of so many excellent recordings.

The soprano Veronika Winter does a fine job in the aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’, but the soprano Elisabeth Scholl markedly less so in ‘Ach mein Sin wo willt du endlich hin’, one of the more dramatic arias.

The aria no 20, ‘Mein Jesu, ach!’ comes from Bach’s 1749 version, replacing the usual ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’. It is also one of the arias where the tenor has been substituted by a soprano, which, in the framework of this recording, is a pity as it is sung by the least convincing of the cast.

The choir, about the size of Bach’s: 8 to a part (with the exception of the tenors; 7) is quite good, disciplined, with a warm glow and excellent elocution (always an advantage if you can sing in your own language!), but could have done with somewhat more ‘punch’ in places.

The recording is, regrettably, not one of the very best, as compared to other versions of the St. John’s Passion. The Channel Classics recording with the Netherlands Bach Society is vastly superior.

However, at the end of the day and all things considered: Should this have been this year’s Good Friday performance in my local church I would not have liked to miss it.

Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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