Dramatic New Recording of Bach's St. John Passion

The four largest Bach choral works are the Mass in B-minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, and the Christmas Oratorio, and half of those are about today and tomorrow, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (the work was written for performance at Good Friday Vespers). The St. John Passion is in some ways the most daring of the big four, especially as first composed -- the version heard here -- since the 1725 revision doesn't have the opening chorus "Herr, unser Herrscher." The roiling tension of the opening immediately sets the work apart from its peers, and throughout it is considerably more dramatic -- and much leaner than the St. Matthew Passion.

"Lean" is definitely the word for this performance as well. Monica Huggett, famed as a "period performance" violinist, is the first-chair violin and director of a version very concerned with authenticity, and one of the things that sets apart this performance is that oboe is substituted for flute; the booklet notes, by Baroque oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz, make an interesting case for this. The result is a slightly less plushly orchestrated accompaniment. Also, this is the fastest version I know of (I own nine and checking timings on another 18) at a mere 1 hour, 41 minutes, and 25 seconds -- faster than even fellow periodists Koopman, Herreweghe, Bruggen, and Gardiner.

This agile performance emphasizes drama in a nearly operatic way -- by "operatic" I do not mean big-voiced, but instead theatrical, moving the action along. What makes it a quick performance is not just the tempos Huggett chooses, but also the lack of pauses (in this, she is diametrically opposed to, for instance, Harnoncourt). The quick transitions among soloists and the chorus that acts as both crowd and commentator come off very naturally. The arias that demand a certain tenderness get them, though; this is not speed at any cost.

The forces are relatively small -- 12 singers (still much better than one on a part), and 14 instrumentalists -- though hardly skimpy, and the balance between them is good. Tenor Daniels is superb as the Evangelist, bass Hopkins is an affecting Jesus, bass Duncan is a vigorous Pilate, and all three other soloists are similarly fine.

I still have a great fondness for the now-old-fashioned Karl Richter recording (Archiv), the more authentic but gentle Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi), and Andrew Parrott's dramatic but less fleet rendition (Virgin), but Huggett's interpretation makes for an exciting alternative reading. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. On Monday he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach.

steve-holtje

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