Bach: Johannes-Passion

J S Bach: Johannes-Passion
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
Outhere/PHI LPH031. 2CDs 107’08


Cover of CD of Herreweghe Bach Johannes Passion

I can often predict the way in which a performance of the Johannes-Passion is going to develop by the manner in which the opening instrumental bars are performed. The texture appears simple. Swirling low strings underpinned by the repetitive pulse of continuo bass, with two oboes slowly intertwining dissonance-laden melodic lines above them. It is one of those passages of music that can be interpreted in many ways, resulting in differing moods ranging from sinister, threatening, mysterious, to gently calming.

I do wonder how much of the difference in the way these 36 bars can sound is down to the interpretation skills of the conductor, or to their individual conducting and personal style. The conductors who push the tension in those bars do often turn out to be the ones who dominate their forces, creating music that reveals a tension within the performance. On the other hand, we have somebody like Philippe Herreweghe, the Belgian conductor who founded Collegium Vocale Gent 50 years ago. He allows the music to unfold with a gentle but focussed energy. The oboes do not dominate, as they so often do, but are still clearly heard through the carefully articulated strings and continuo.

When the 16-strong chorus enters with their dramatic cries of Herr, Herr, Herr, the initial impression continues. The aural focus is clear, the voices energetic and cohesive. Apart from the Evangelist and Jesus (Maximilian Schmitt & Krešimir Stražanac) all the soloists are included within the chorus. The orchestra is a modest 17 players (with strings of 3,3,2,2,1), including the continuo of organ, lute, gamba and string bass, but no harpsichord, reflecting our knowledge of the pre-1749 versions.

There are many questions about interpreting the Johannes-Passion, and they are described well in the programme notes. There is no definitive version. Bach gave four performances between 1723 and 1749, and tried, unsuccessfully, to give a fifth in 1739. All were different, sometimes in quite radical ways. The version on this recording is the most frequently performed compromises, a hybrid drawing on Bach’s four known performances and therefore not one that was ever actually given by Bach.

Sensibly, the two CD’s divide at the junction of the first and second parts, giving timings of 33’29 plus 73’39. Quite why some people divide it, or have concerts intervals, differently is beyond me. Musically, the performance continues the rather reflective and introspective mood of the opening bars. Although there is plenty of punch in the turba passages, the arias are generally sensitive. Dorothea Mields, Damian Guillon, Robin Tritschler and Peter Kooij all prove to be excellent transmitters of Bach’s and Philippe Herreweghe’s musical concepts, as is Krešimir Stražanac as Jesus.

My only real issue is the vocal style of the Evangelist, Maximilian Schmitt. His use of vibrato and other vocal devices usually reserved for a much later repertoire seems in conflict with the exemplary period style of his colleagues, both vocal and instrumental.

Instrumentally this is brilliant, with sensitive soloists from the woodwind and strings, and effective use of the limited continuo resources. The continuo organ sounds as though it has a Principal rank, although there is no information or photographs to confirm this. It was recorded in the deSingel arts centre, Antwerp, home of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp. The acoustic supports the musical intentions well.

Michael Maul’s programme notes (under the title of Incomplete Complete!), texts and performer CVs are given in English, German, French and Dutch. They can be viewed online here.