Bach: St John Passion
Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell
Avie AV2369. 2CDs 33’08+74’34.
This recording stems from a series of semi-staged performances in Cleveland and New York in March 2016. Videos of extracts of a live event can be viewed here. The project was referred to as ‘A Dramatic Presentation’, and involved the main protagonists singing from memory to each other and the audience, who were treated as part of the crowd in some of the turbo choruses, with half the choir moving from the stage to stand by the audience, notably during the scenes with Pilatus. A timely reminder, perhaps, of The immediacy and emotional intensity of the live performances can only be imagined from the recording, but the directness and strength of feeling remains.
The opening chorus signals some of the more distinctive musical interpretations, the (23-strong) choir and orchestra’s clear and precise articulation exposing the small motifs that is the foundation of Bach’s, and indeed, all baroque music. It also warns of the possible downside of Jeannette Sorrell’s dramatic interpretation, the exaggerated half-bar beats from the contrabass adding an unusually percussive element not evidenced from the sources. Some of the chorales are rather too strongly dripping with emotion, such that any sense of momentum is lost, most notably in the opening choral of Part 2, with its extended pauses between lines. Big rallentandos at the end of choruses and chorales are also a bit of distraction. But there is a great deal to make up for such things.
The opening Part 2 chorale leads into one of the most powerful sections of the recording, and of Bach’s Passion, the scenes with Pilatus. Here the momentum is compulsive, with turbo choruses bursting in with an urgency that can only remind us of the ease with which a crowd can be induced to violence. This emotional intensity is also prominent in the key vocal roles of The Evangelist (Nicholas Phan), Jesus (Jesse Blumberg), and Pilatus (Jeffrey Strauss), all of whom absorb far more of the perceived personality of their characters than is heard in many performances of this extraordinary work.
The intensity of The Evangelist’s role is perhaps the most striking, as Nicholas Phan outside the story-telling role to impart real strength to some seemingly innocuous phrases, for example, merely announcing who was about to speak to whom, but in a strength of voice that imparts the power of the impending conversation. As can be seen from the videos, Jeffrey Strauss makes a striking figure as Pilatus, directly addressing the crowd/audience in his questions. The singing of the arias is excellent, with Amanda Forsythe, soprano, Terry Wey, countertenor, and Christian Immler, baritone, joining the three principals.
The orchestral colours are well-balanced and projected. It was good to hear the little chamber organ being given rather more recorded presence in the recitatives than is usual (and as was probably evident in the live performances), although the sound is very far from the type of organ sound that Bach intended, and the clatter of keys can sometimes be heard. Incidentally, I was amused to see from the videos that Jeannette Sorrell’s score, sitting on top of the chamber organ, has been raised higher with a Dictionary of Religion – an essential reference for any conductor.
Of course this, and all other ‘performances’, are quite unlike anything that Bach would have experienced. It would be a brave promoter who presented this work as Bach did to in Leipzig, with the entire musical forces positioned out-of-sight on a high gallery behind and above the audience/congregation, and a three-hour sermon after the first 40 minutes or so. Bach fans will no doubt already have their preferred interpretation and recordings, and I doubt that this will change their minds. But it is a perfectly valid take on Bach’s music and the human and, if you believe such things, the divine elements of the story as it has come down to us.
People today are still prepared to die for their irrational beliefs or, far more often, to kill others for not believing the same as them. Crowds are still being whipped up to demand violence, and people are still washing their hands of responsibility. A powerfully emotive interpretation of an extraordinarily powerful piece of music helps to remind us of that.