Disc of the Month: Bach St John Passion

BBC Music Magazine, by Paul Riley, 1 June 2011


Performance 5 stars
Recording 4 stars

John Eliot Gardiner was already a seasoned Bach conductor when he last recorded the St John Passion in 1986 – for many, a benchmark. Since then he's made 'Bach Cantata Pilgrimage' and must be the only music director other than Bach himself to have directly experienced the complete cycles in liturgical 'real time'. What this means for the St John is that he now perceives it as the central jewel in a necklace of cantatas – its first hearers consciously 'prepared' by the cantatas immediately leading up to Holy Week 1724.

Whatever the case – and Gardiner's eloquent booklet notes are typically thought-provoking and carefully argued – musically this live 2003 broadcast from the Kaiserdom in Königslutter is even finer than its mid-80s predecessor. The violas d'amore might lose the love rather unfortunately at one point in 'Betrachte, meine Seele' but there are remarkably few negative signs of a live performance and all the gains in terms of spontaneity and dramatic thrust. To borrow a phrase used more than once by Gardiner, his is a reading which lives viscerally in the "here and now". Even in the first bars, the carefully-nuanced, multi-layered detailing of the orchestral writing transfixes; and throughout, the Monteverdi Choir is typically alert and tautly-sprung. Crowd scenes crackle with indignation – the final moments leading up to Pilate handling Jesus over to be crucified are electrifying – while the chorales, lovingly sculpted around a close reading of the texts, sound more like tone-poems-in-miniature than congregational hymns.

Supremely involved and involving, impeccably paced, Mark Padmore's Evangelist holds the whole together with the supple, hypnotic élan of a born story-teller, steering a narrative Gardiner shapes with a tingling sense of the human drama without losing sight of Bach's deeper theological purposes. Padmore also steps out of role to deliver an impeccably judged 'Ach, mein Sinn', boldly declamatory without once allowing its spiky rhythms and lacerating contours to tip over into mere harangue.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann's Jesus is dignified, in control of his fate, (though Peter Harvey's Pilate has the greater vocal presence), while Bernada Fink and Katharine Fuge are wonderfully contrasted vocally. Fink's noble, composed 'Es ist vollbracht' is beautifully offset by the almost glacially benumbed 'Zerfliesse, mein Herze' of Fuge – a contrast already rehearsed in Part I where the 'cloaked' quality of Fink's 'Von den Stricken meiner Sünden' points up Joanne Lunn's lightfooted and mercurial 'Ich floge dir gleichfalls'. Truly, this is a jewel beyond price.