Bach: Johannespassion - van der Meel

Bach: Johannespassion - van der Meel

QuintOne  Q08001 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal

Bach: Johannes Passion (1725 version) BWV 245

Machteld Baumans (soprano)
Maarten Engeltjes (alto)
Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Mattijs van de Woerd (bass)
Frans Fiselier (Jesus)
Nico van der Meel (Evangelist)
La Furia
Concerto d'Amsterdam
Nico van der Meel (conductor)

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - March 15, 2008

The St John Passion seems to exist under the shadow of what Anna Magdalena Bach called 'the Great Passion' of St Matthew. This is a pity, as I feel that its very conciseness enhances a great recounting of the Passion drama. Bach, for one reason or another, changed his mind and produced notably different versions for each of the four performances which took place in his lifetime.

The first version was performed on Good Friday 1724 at the St Thomas church. For the St Nicholas performance in 1725, Bach replaced the opening and closing choruses and added three arias (BWV 245a-c) and deleted one (Ach mein sinn) from the first version. Also, the original opening chorus was replaced by 'O Mensch bewein dein Sünde groß' (which was later reused at the end of Part One of the Matthew Passion). The second version's closing chorale was also replaced by a setting of Christe, 'Du Lamm Gottes', taken from the cantata BWV 23. There are also three new arias added. and some texts from the Matthew gospel set to recitatives.

Around 1730, Bach restored the original opening chorus and final chorale, and removed the three new arias, amongst other smaller changes. For the fourth version, probably in 1749 just before his death, he again revised the St John, reverting mostly to the original version and removing the viola d'amore parts which were old-fashioned, but adding another gamba to the continuo as well as a lute. This is the version probably most recorded and performed. Clearly Bach felt deeply about this passion, and he even began work on a fine autograph copy (as still exists for the Matthew Passion), but his task was never completed.

Nico van der Meel and his team present us here with the second (1725) version, which focuses less on St John's gospel triumphalist theme of Christ the King in Glory and is more contemplative in the Pietist idiom. This is a period performance, but uses 4 voices to a part in the chorus. Although it is is generally agreed now that Bach mainly used one singer to a part, this would never have been a credo with him; as an intensely professional musician he would have used more voices on special occasions if good singers were available. And good ones we have here. The La Furia Ensemble specialise in early music and use the latest scholarship, and their richer sound compared with one-to-a-part versions is not achieved at the expense of fine rhythmic pointing and clarity of internal texture. Diction is good too, but of course texts are often sometimes lost in dense polyphonic choruses. La Furia bring a great deal of energy into proceedings; their Turba (crowd) choruses are charged with emotion, and they sing the many chorales with great and robust fervour, relishing Bach's dissonant suspensions and rich cadences.

This Passion is richly orchestrated, with oboes da Caccia, an oboe d'Amore, pairs of transverse flutes and violas d'Amore adding to the strings. A pair of bassoons and a viola da gamba join the cellos, basses and organ to make a substantial continuo group. Those averse to gut strings and restricted vibrato need not fear, the violin tone is gleaming at full volume, never scratchy, and Concerto d'Amsterdam's soft playing is quite beautiful.

At this point I must mention the recording, because it is one of the most natural and transparent I have encountered. A considerable contribution to that view is the presence of a rich and visceral bass line, exactly as one would hear from a live performance in a good acoustic. Bach's continuo bass lines are the powerhouse of his music, carrying along all the other strands in a fundamental river of rhythm. I cannot recall another recent recording where the continuo was so truthfully balanced in the mix. The balance between soloists and choir is also natural and has exemplary positional clarity and focus. You have to hear it in multichannel (5.0) if possible, as it places you in the church at Hervormde in the Netherlands.

The indefatigable Nico van der Meel has himself sung the Evangelist on previous discs and in concert many times, so it is fascinating to hear his direction of the Passion as well as his performance in it. He is a potent narrator, so the Evangelist's recitatives are flexible and at times quite gripping. The brief interjections from the characters in the drama dovetail very well into his story-telling arc; Jesus (Frans Fiselier) has a rich and authoritative tone, thankfully easily distinguished from Pilate (Mattijs van de Woerd), who is dark-toned and imperious. All in all, the soloists are a strong and experienced team, and I could not find a significantly weak link. Particularly affecting is Maarten Engeltjes, a counter-tenor in the guise of an alto, noble and strong in the Adagio molto 'Es ist volbracht', where he duets with the viola da gamba in its higher register. Soprano Machteld Baumans makes 'Zerfliesse mein Herze' a pool of beauty, where her fluid line and great breath control on long-held notes is elegantly decorated with the plangent oboes da Caccia and the soft hootings of a pair of wooden flutes. The subtle timbres of voice and instruments are breathtakingly caught here by the high-resolution surround sound.

The two SACDs come in a triple gatefold digipak with the booklet separate in a pouch. The artwork is contemporary and eschews the normal religious symbolism, perhaps emphasising that this is a work of universal message and human appeal. Nico van der Meel, very much adding his stamp to the whole project, also wrote the notes, considering Bach's mind-changes in the versions, and puts in context the possible theological implications of his rather eclectic selection of Passion texts. A regrettable omission, however, is that the texts themselves are only provided in German.

I feel that Nico van de Meel's foresight in recording the second version of the St John Passion has paid off magnificently; not only does it add insight to Bach's creative process, but it reinforces our appreciation of this great work. The music is full of energy and the choruses dance authentically. Even if you already have a favourite recording of the St John in its first or fourth incarnations, this one is significantly different in content. As a performance, it will certainly give you a memorable sonic and musical experience.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and


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