Bach St John Passion Ralf OttoJohann Sebastian Bach
St John Passion (Johannes Passion)

Georg Poplutz: tenor (Evangelist), Yorck Felix Speer: bass (Jesus)
Soloists: Julia Kleiter: soprano, Gerhild Romberger: alto, Daniel Sans: tenor (Petrus), Matthias Winckhler: bass

Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz
Ralf Otto, conductor

Naxos, 2018

St John Passion: Genesis of the Work

Even though the Johannes (St John) Passion is less unified than the Mätthaus Passion, this is one of the works with which Johann Sebastian Bach was best remembered in the past – and one of the favourites of all time.

The St John Passion is the first large-scale choral work Bach composed for Leipzig. It premiered at Vespers in the Nikolaikirche on Good Friday (7 April) 1724. The Vespers service were a kind of a novelty in Leipzig. They were introduced just few years before, thanks to the funding of Maria Rosina Koppy, a jeweller’s widow. In 1721, the first performance of a work of this kind took place, with Kuhnau’s (now lost) St Mark Passion.

After the premiere, the St John Passion was performed in 1732, in 1732 and in 1739, but every time Bach undertook considerable revisions, even though for unclear reasons. Every time, however, the modifications were significant, especially for what concerns the sound and the structure of the work.

The Four Versions of the St John Passion

From what it is possible to reconstruct of the first version of the St John Passion, it was not a unified work. The Evangelist’s part includes interpolations from St Matthew’s Gospel and the words of the texts were taken from the Passion poem by Barthold Hinrich Brockes and works by Christian Heinrich Postel and Christian Weise.

In the second version (1725), Bach added many movements from a Passion composed for Weimar. In the third version (probably composed in 1732), Bach eschews the interpolations from St Matthew and included a new aria and sinfonia, which are now both lost.

It is not clear when Bach began to revise the work. Perhaps he started the modification around 1739, but then he left it aside for a decade. The fourth version dates to 1749 and is much closer to the original one. The premiere took place on Good Friday that same year.

The version to which the present recording refers to is the last.

The Performance of the St John Passion

Conduction

The St John Passion is a work where an inclination towards an “operatic” fashion appears next to Bach’s manifest, deep sacred inspiration. Conductor Ralf Otto proves to be extremely sensitive in this regard and he finds the right balance between the two elements, even though (or at least it seems to me) the former prevails.

Tempos are usually fast though not hurried and the conduction is brisk. This choice of tempos sometimes prevents to chisel every detail, but it has the positive aspect to give prominence to unity and cohesion, so that the result is overall very effective.

There is moreover a tendency to soften the Passion, which is “harsher” than the much more popular Matthäus Passion. In this way, the St John Passion appears as a smooth, polished work.

Bachorchester Mainz and Bachchor Mainz

The Bachorchester Mainz plays with technical precision and elegance. Otto elicits smooth and soft sound from it and the strings in particular are very well recorded. Also the Bachchor Mainz, a chorus of well-established reputation led by Otto since 1986, is composed by outstanding performer. The St John Passion give them all the chances to draw the listener’s attention. They are the first voices we listen to when the Passion begins and what we hear is definitely wonderful. The voices of the Bachchor Mainz are powerful and flexible and their expressiveness really gives meaning to the Passion.

Soloists

The many soloists of the St John Passion are indisputably stylish singers. Of course, tenors Georg Poplutz (the Evangelist), Daniel Sans (Petrus) and bass Yorck Felix Speer (Jesus) stand out better, not only for the greater length of their parts, but also for their fine performance. The other soloists, however, should not be underestimated as all of them are remarkable for their sound technique and for the attention they give to the text, which is easy to follow also for those who do not understand German (with the help of the libretto, of course).

Conclusion

This recording of Bach’s St John Passion is really amazing. Ralf Otto’s conduction is painstaking and insightful and the performers are of very high level. Definitely, this recording deserves a place of honour in the discography of Bach’s masterpiece.

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