Bach: St John Passion

Nicholas Phan Evangelist, Jesse Blumberg Jesus, Jeffrey Strauss Pilate, Amanda Forsythe, Terry Wey, Christian Immler ScTBar, Apollo’s Singers, Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell
107:42 (2 CDs)
AV2369

Jeanette Sorrell performed the John Passion  repeatedly in Passiontide 2016 in the Cleveland area of the USA, and this recording captures her style. Described as a dramatic presentation in the notes, some videos are being released on the Apollo’s Fire website which help this reviewer at least understand where Sorrell is coming from.

She conducts the performance, plays the continuo (with the narrative at least) and directs the staged dialogue, which took place on a well-lit platform among the players in the live performances. All members of the ‘cast’ seem to be drawn from the excellently prepared coro; but this is emphatically not an SATB quartet plus ripienists, but chorus of some twenty-something voices, who apparently stepped – or some of them – into the audience to perform some of the turba  interjections. All the ‘characters’ sing off-copy with gesture, and the dialogue is so fast and furious that it sometimes seems a bit of a scramble. It also has the curious effect of making the Evangelist – at his best I think in the more reflective arias, which he also sings – over-dramatize some pretty unimportant passages like, Pilate said unto him, which should surely be delivered pretty sotto voce. It also has the downside of not really valuing the subtle pacing and changes in tonality in Bach’s setting of the text of John 18 & 19 when you follow the text pretty deliberately.

The chorus here in the turba  sections is wonderful: crisp and bright, while able to give a subtly different character to the changing emotions of the crowd. But I am less sure about the imposed dramatic performance in the outer choruses and the chorales. In the opening chorus, there are substantial rallentandi at the end of each section, and the heavy accentuation of the four beats in a bar make for a plodding start. In the chorales, each line tends to be shaped as a unit on its own, so there is a loss of the liturgical quality of the whole, and the dynamic shading too is often exaggerated. In the final chorus the momentum almost grinds to a halt at the end of each section, and in the last chorale, the ‘dramatic’ pianissimo start – are the instruments playing at all? – builds to a huge fortissimo.

Despite these reservations, the arias are beautifully done, and apparently were performed with singers out front to engage the audience in reflection. Amanda Forsythe has a clear, bell-like voice ideal for this music: her Zerfließe  is sublime; and Terry Wey is an experienced singer who makes the most of his rich timbre in the middle section of Es ist vollbracht  – every note is beautifully articulated, though I could have done without his Handelian-style cadenza in Von den Stricken . Christian Immler is a wonderful bass (as is Jesse Blumberg, the Jesus), and his Eilt, eilt  is perfect – as is the (?semi) SAT chorus. They are joined by excellent obbligato instrumentalists, and the balance and tempi in these arias are as good as it gets.

But Bach’s theological drama is somewhat masked by Sorrell. Her ‘visionary concept of a dramatic production’ divides the work into five ‘scenes’, and this division cuts across Bach own palindromic central section, which places the chorale Durch dein Gefängnis  at the centre. And the imposition of her own characterization of the voice parts, means that she misses the theological point that it is the same leading bass voice who sings the words of Jesus who immediately after his death also sings the lilting 12/8 Mein teurer Heiland  in the key of D major – a key associated with the trumpets of resurrection!

I am sure that the live performances were thrilling, and certainly the musicians – both instrumental and vocal – are really well prepared, and were carefully chosen; but people hoping that this performance will give them greater insights into how Bach understood the Passion according to St John might do better to stick with John Butt’s Dunedin performance or Pierre Pierlot’s with Ricercar.

But the quality of the recording is superb, and for those who need a modern dramatic take to get into Bach, this performance would be a serious contender.

David Stancliffe