Live Recording that Does Not Bear Comparison with Herreweghe
Leslie Richford | Selsingen, Lower Saxony | 11/25/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Johann Sebastian Bach?s ?St. John Passion? is one of the key musical works of our occidental culture. Bach wrote this music for the edification of Lutheran congregations, but its implications take it well beyond the bounds of a denominational setting or of the mid-18th century. This is an intense emotional and intellectual meditation on the suffering and death of Christ and its meaning for the individual; it is a work which crosses the barriers between the secular art of music and the science of theology. No wonder then that every conductor of vocal music worth his salt wants to perform and record this monumental piece. When he does, however, he soon discovers that his path is fraught with immense difficulties: Bach left no definitive version of the Passion, so a modern conductor has to decide which version to perform or to put together a version from the various extant manuscripts. And then there are questions concerning the actual performance, too numerous to be detailed here. With so many pitfalls to be avoided, a recording of the St. John Passion needs to be extremely thoroughly prepared, and as a listener I think it is only reasonable to expect a carefully edited studio recording that approaches as nearly as possible the conductor?s ideal.
Unfortunately, it seems that Harry Christophers was somewhat wrong-footed by some of these pitfalls. The booklet to his Chandos Chaconne edition of the St. John Passion reveals: ?Recorded live in St. John?s Smith Square, London SW1 on 14-17 March 1989.? I take it that the two CDs in the box were put together after recording four live performances of the whole Passion ? a practice that seems to be gaining in currency but that I find unconvincing: this is neither a genuine ?live? performance nor a careful studio recording. The recorded sound is, as is usual with Chandos, good, although I felt that there were occasional balance problems and that the instruments of the orchestra could have been brought forward a little.
Comparing Christophers? recording with that made two years earlier by Philippe Herreweghe with the Collegium Vocale Ghent and the Orchestra of the Chapelle Royale, Paris, it becomes plain that although Harry Christophers and his team perform Bach?s music, the whole lacks a certain roundness and emotional intensity. The best part of the production appears to me to be the Sixteen Choir, but their efforts appear to be thwarted by the soloists, who seem determined to destroy the tension built up by the ?turbae?. Ian Partridge is, as the evangelist, in an unenviable position; although he pronounces the individual German words well, he never manages to convey real meaning ? he slurs and binds expressions that Germans would separate with glottal stops, and his lyrical approach tends to undermine the drama involved in the Gospel story. Howard Crook in the Herreweghe recording is just so much better in this role.
David Wilson-Johnson as Jesus never seems to feel really at home in what he is singing, and his German pronunciation is not always accurate; Peter Lika on the Herreweghe recording is streets ahead as far as conviction is concerned. The soprano arias are sung on the Chandos recording by Patrizia Kwella, an excellent Handel singer with a light, perhaps rather contour-less voice. Her German is faultless, and of the soloists on the recording hers was the contribution I liked best. But even here, Barbara Schlick on the Herreweghe brings a whole world to arias such as ?Ich folge dir gleichfalls? that Kwella is just not able to reach.
I don?t know what possessed Harry Christophers to invite David James to sing the alto arias on his recording. James fits in very well with the Hilliard Ensemble, with whom he has produced many vocal CDs, but as a Bach soloist he is worlds away from producing the kind of sound that make arias like ?Von den Stricken meiner Sünden? pluck at the chords of the heart. Philippe Herreweghe decided, I think very wisely, to use a female alto for these parts, and Cathérine Patriasz evokes true emotion, whereas David James just sounds strained. There is simply no comparison here: Listen to the two versions of ?Es ist vollbracht? and you will see what I mean. Possibly, Christophers is more ?historical? (although then he should have considered reducing the size of his choir), but musically Herreweghe is in a completely different league.
Tenor William Kendall sings on both recordings, but on the Herreweghe he sounds a lot more ?involved?. And Michael George is, on the Christophers, a stentorian bass who tends to make Pilate sound more manly than Christ and who ? although I admire him greatly ? does not seem to bring the necessary sensitivity to his arias; his counterpart on the Herreweghe recording, Peter Kooy, has a completely different timbre which does not detract from the emotional intimateness of these arias: compare ?Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen?.
All in all, I would say that the Herreweghe is ?aus einem Guss?, as the Germans say, i. e. a unified whole, whereas the Christophers never really gets beyond a reproduction of the notes. Disappointing.