Although J. S. Bach’s St John Passion has widely become a staple of Holy Week observances, along with its greater sibling, the St Matthew, audiences are probably now more used to hearing it in more or less authentic presentations. This Chandos recording defies that on at least two counts, enabling listeners to revisit the work afresh.
Sung in English, rather than the original German, with considerable gusto by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, it bears all the best aspects of the tradition of choral society performances in the UK: enthusiastic, upfront singing and an impressive, effusive body of sound from a massed choir (one-hundred names are listed in the booklet). The downside is that the texture is not always absolutely crisp or focused, but the CEFC provides an emphatic entry after the dramatic instrumental introduction (even despite the fairly relaxed pace under David Temple’s direction), fearsome fury as the crowd baying for Christ’s blood during his trial and crucifixion, and a moving, reflective manner in the chorales taking the part, as it were, of the Christian congregation.
The use of English also spurs the vocal soloists on to a vivid narrative presence, which, in turn, results in a thoroughly dramatic and engaging interpretation for the listener. Robert Murray’s Evangelist remains neutral and detached yet he also characterises the role with sufficient musical personality that brings to life the dramatic incidents he relates. Ashley Riches evokes human compassion and wisdom in the role of Jesus, whilst Andrew Ashwin is equally idiomatic in the parts of Peter and Pilate. The soloists in the unnamed roles offer pleasing variety, with plangent purity from Sophie Bevan and Robin Blaze (the latter notably so in “From the bondage of transgression”), keen ardour from Benjamin Hulett, and an almost raw, trembling vibrato from Neal Davies in the sequences for bass which add urgent gravitas.
Temple’s conducting is measured and generally contemplative, such that occasionally there is a lack of tension (as in the soprano’s mournful “O heart, melt in weeping after Jesus’s death”) but he impels the work with bite and force when needed, particularly in the trial scene. His reading encompasses a sense of unity to sustain a clear narrative drive. The Bach Camerata sounds somewhat recessed in relation to the Chorus, as though it is positioned behind the voices, such that the viola da gamba and lute appear like an afterthought in “Come ponder, O my soul” rather than participating as equal partners with the bass singer. But the distinctive timbres offered by the instrumentalists cannot be gainsaid.
Re-casting a work in a language other than that in which it was written inevitably calls for compromise in the synthesis between word and music, but that is more than made up for by the vigour and cogency here, an immediate musical re-enactment of Bach’s sacred narrative. The English text is included in the booklet. A Matthew Passion from the same forces would be equally welcome.