BACH: St. John’s Passion

J. S. Bach: St. John Passion, BWV 245
The Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven (cond.)
Gerd Türk (Evangelist); Stephan Mac Leod (Jesus); Caroline Stam;
Peter de Groot; Charles Daniels; Bas Ramselaar
Channel Classics CCS-SA- 22005

The explosion of research into the music of J. S. Bach allows for innumerable interpretations of his works. Scholars meticulously study the musical source material, letters and writings from the 17th and 18th centuries, and anything else that could possibly lead to an insight into Bach’s musical practice. Invariably, each interpreter achieves new conclusions and raises new questions forming their own distinctive ideal. In the last decade and a half, the dialogue over Bach’s choral music has been particularly active and fierce with proponents of massive romantic proportions and those who prefer single singers and instrumentalists on a part.
This recording of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion by Jos van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society leans toward the “single singer” position with mild modification. In the liner notes, Van Veldhoven puts forth a convincing case to use solo singers, the ‘concertists,’ supplemented by one additional ‘ripienist’ per part for the choral sections. This small ensemble allows for a single instrumentalist on a part as well. The only mild limitation of the small choir is the inability to truly convey the integral link between text and music that Bach creates so vividly in the chorales.
Another interesting contention van Veldhoven makes is that Bach added flutes in later revisions of the work. As a reconstruction of the first performance in 1724, the only wind instruments on this recording are an oboe and oboe d’amore. The immediate result of this omission is a monochromatic sound dominated by strings. The loss of color is most notable in the movements when the flutes provide obbligato to the soprano soloist. In “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” the solo instrumental line is taken by a violin which seems to work quite well. However, in “Zerfliesse,” the coupling of an oboe on the flute part with the oboe d’more makes a thick reedy sound through which the soprano Caroline Stam has a little difficulty singing.
Overall the musical quality of the recording is superb. The small ensemble plays and sings the piece like chamber music with a communal connection and sensitivity to one another. Gerd Türk admirably narrates the story as the Evangelist and Stephan MacLeod’s Jesus maintains a restrained peace throughout the Passion. Carolyn Stam and the other soloists, Peter de Groot, alto, Charles Daniels, tenor, and Bas Remselaar, bass, all sing with beautiful clarity and emotion. Remselaar’s “Eilt” is the highlight of the recording as he navigates the brisk octave and half runs and florid melismas with a frightening intensity juxtaposed against the calm serenity of the chorus’ chorale.
A final note of praise should extend to van Veldhoven and the recording’s producers. The liner notes are contained in a two hundred page hard bound book with scholarly background information on the Gospel of John’s telling of the Passion story, the sources of Bach’s musical setting, and Veldhoven’s interpretation. Also included are beautiful reproductions of Dutch artwork spanning the 11th through 20th centuries capturing moments in the Passion story. The spacing of this artwork at its corresponding place in text of the work highlights the scholarly intentions of this project. Van Veldhoven’s fine recording captures a vision of the St. John Passion shaped by years of musical, historical, and cultural research.
Adam Luebke