Johann Sebastian Bach St John Passion Review

Released 2011.  

BBC Review

A little slice of musical heaven.

Charlotte Gardner 2011

Of Bach's two passion settings, it's the later St Matthew one that has historically scooped the lion’s share of performances and general praise. The St John Passion has often been viewed as the cruder older sibling. Those who would agree with that analysis should get hold of these two discs. John Eliot Gardiner argues that Bach himself considered his St John setting, the longest work in his career up to that point, to be supremely important. This recording should leave no-one in any doubt as to the works sheer beauty and power.

Few ensembles can come to Bach's St John Passion with quite the degree of performance-based insight that Gardiner and his musicians have done. Written for Good Friday in 1724, the passion was the centrepiece of Bach's year-long cycle of liturgical cantatas. Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir spent 2000 performing and recording these surrounding cantatas, before recording this disc in 2003. The result is a little slice of musical heaven. In sound, it's a masterpiece of technical precision and musical beauty. In tone, it perfectly balances the theatrical with the devotional. The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir expertly build and release tension, their phrases shaped to sound natural, instinctive, and emotionally complete. The work's many dramatic contrasts are also brilliantly done. The chorale "Wer hat dich so geschlagen" ("Who has beaten thee thus") is sung to a degree of mournful beauty that makes hairs stand on end, whilst the baying crowd scenes are sharp and angry. Meanwhile, the soloists deliver everything that you would expect and wish for from such known Bach exponents.

Perhaps the biggest joy of the St John Passion is that, for all the ferocity and sorrow of the Good Friday story, it's a truly optimistic work, anticipating the resurrection with music suffused with light and hope. Gardiner and his band have brought this to the fore, exemplified by the gorgeous radiance with which the Monteverdi Choir perform the chorale, "In meines Herzens Grunde" ("Deep in my heart"). All in all, an interpretation to savour.

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