Monday, April 11, 2016

J.S. Bach's St. John Passion: A new interpretation from René Jacobs

Harmonia-Mundi HMC 802236.37 (2-CD box set plus DVD) (2016)
J.S. Bach: St. John Passion BWV 245
Werner Güra (tenor (evangelist))
Sunhae Im (soprano)
Benno Schauchtner (alto)
Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor)
Johannes Weisser (bass (Jesus))
RIAS Chamber Choir
Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin
René Jacobs

Gorgeously sung and played, recorded in stunning, naturalistic Super-Audio sound, René Jacobs' 2016 reading of Bach's St. John Passion captures the poignancy and pathos, drama and profound introspection of one of the composer's most personal and moving works. What makes this set not merely desirable, but indispensable is the inclusion of an appendix comprising highlights from the original 1725 version of the score--a fascinating glimpse into Bach's creative process--the final version we know today was only completed shortly before the composer's death in 1750. The later, more familiar version, strikes one as much more austere and inward looking yet also more emotionally direct, where the original is positively extrovert by comparison, more conventionally dramatic, and brimming with lyric opulence.

Jacobs' closest competition here is, no doubt, John Eliot Gardiner's 1986 reading with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for DG Archive (most recently available in a 22-disc box set: Bach Sacred Masterpieces (477 8735 (2010)). Both versions feature excellent soloists and wonderful singing, but I would have to give the laurel to Jacobs due in no small part to the stunning sound of the RIAS Chamber Choir. Simply glorious! (Also from 2010, a 10-disc box set from Sony features Helmuth Rillings' 1984 Hänssler Classics recording of the St. John Passion, but I came away deeply disappointed and even somewhat disillusioned by a performance that seems ponderous and heavy-handed, notwithstanding the presence of such notable soloists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schrier, Arlene Auger and Julia Hamari (Sony (Masters Series) 88697687172 (2010)). After hearing the Jacobs version, I will probably never listen to the Rilling again.

Harmonia-Mundi's elegant packaging is, in itself, a delight to the senses. The substantial box includes a documentary DVD in addition to a glossy 107-page booklet. The booklet is nested atop a sort of 'trap door' under which the two SACDs are housed in discretely 'built-in' media trays. It's a clever and very elegant solution to a problem that has too often vexed manufacturers and collectors over the decades.

René Jacobs' new interpretation of the St. John Passion is recommended without reservation.

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