27 February 2013

CD REVIEW: J.S. Bach—JOHANNES-PASSION (Bostridge, N. Davies, Sampson, I. Davies, Mulroy, R. Williams; Polyphony; Hyperion CDA67901/2)

Johann Sebastian Bach: JOHANNES-PASSION - Polyphony [Hyperion CDA67901/2]

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion—I. Bostridge (Evangelist), N. Davies (Christ), C. Sampson (soprano), I. Davies (countertenor), N. Mulroy (tenor), R. Williams (baritone, Pilatus); Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Layton [Recorded in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 10 – 13 April 2012; Hyperion CDA67901/2]

After nearly two centuries of scholarship that began with the enthusiasm of Felix Mendelssohn for the rediscovered Matthäus-Passion, the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach continue to offer challenges for which there are many suggested but no definitive solutions.  Recent opinion among historically-informed-performance practitioners advocates the ‘one voice per part’ approach now familiar from several notable recordings of the Passions and Cantatas.  Even in the cases of composers whose lives and compositional processes are far better documented than Bach’s, there are undeniable limitations to latter-day musicians’ abilities to fully reconstruct and execute composers’ original intentions.  Furthermore, there are many instances—such as those involving music composed for castrati—in which a composer’s inaugural performance conditions could not be exactly re-enacted were they known.  The music of Bach poses unique challenges in that the dearth of information about the specific performance conditions to which the composer’s works were subject when new offers modern interpreters opportunities for individual choices, some of which discard tradition solely for the sake of generating discussion.  Maestro Stephen Layton brings to Bach’s Johannes-Passion his own unique tradition, developed through performances with Polyphony, that tempers decades-old conventions with respectful innovations.

One of Maestro Layton’s most compelling decisions is performing the second stanzas of several chorales a cappella, with the instrumental accompaniments played only on the first stanzas.  Any objections to this practice are averted by including recordings of these chorales with full accompaniments as appendices, but hearing the a cappella versions within the context of the narrative is refreshing.  The beautifully contemplative quality brought to the music by the a cappella singing is very touching.  The singing of Polyphony is of exceptional musicality, the voices blending expertly without any of the parts being lost or given undue prominence.  In the turba choruses, the Polyphony choristers sing with stinging dramatic profile without sacrificing accuracy.  The power that Polyphony can summon is remarkable for a relatively small ensemble, and the tonal amplitude sounds precisely right for the Johannes-Passion, avoiding the anaemic sound of single-voice-per-part performances and the over-loading of the performances of the mammoth choirs of the past.  Polyphony respond with complete dedication to Maestro Layton’s leadership, shaping the performance with attention to detail that never distorts the cumulative progress of the performance.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offer playing of consistent refinement and virtuosity, accompanying chorus and soloists with rapt musicality and tonal beauty.  Choristers and instrumentalists display the kind of musical integrity that the music of Bach demands but, even in this age of attention to historically-appropriate performance practices, so infrequently receives.

In terms of solo singing, this is one of most successful recorded versions of Johannes-Passion.  Carolyn Sampson, the soprano soloist, is a familiar presence in Baroque music, and her singing of the soprano arias in this performance confirms that she is a tremendously gifted singer.  The music for all of the aria soloists in Johannes-Passion is so melodically beguiling that it can seem deceptively simple to the casual listener.  A performance as assured as Ms. Sampson’s might further this illusion: she sings her music so capably that she seems to encounter no difficulties.  Her music is far from an easy sing, however, and the brilliance of Ms. Sampson’s singing leaves even some very accomplished rivals on other recordings in the shade.

Technical acumen is also demanded by the music for the tenor soloist, and it seems from his performance on this recording that his arias extend Nicholas Mulroy—the Evangelist on Dunedin Consort’s new recording of Johannes-Passion—to the limits of his considerable technique.  Mr. Mulroy’s is an attractive voice, produced with liquid ease, however, and the sense of strain audible in some of his music’s most challenging passages movingly coveys the anguish of the texts.  It is no longer as common as it once was for tenors to sing both the Evangelists and tenor solos in Bach’s Passions, and indeed the requirements of the roles are quite different.  In order to effectively perform the tenor arias in Johannes-Passion, it is necessary not to make them sound easy but to make them sound heartfelt.  Mr. Mulroy achieves this palpably, facing the most daunting passages in his music honestly and honorably.

Baritone Roderick Williams is familiar to music lovers from many fine performances and recordings of an extremely varied repertory, some of the finest amongst which are his sterling contributions to recordings of songs by British composers.  Here singing the bass arias and the role of Pontius Pilate, Mr. Williams provides the open-throated security and open-hearted directness for which he is appreciated.  Pilate is an important and ambiguous presence in the Passion narrative, both his proclamation of having found no fault during his interview with Christ and his ultimate delivery of Christ unto the hands of the Jews for crucifixion receiving powerful settings by Bach.  Mr. Williams delivers Pilate’s lines with complete attention to their significance but without any suggestion of the cardboard villain offered by many singers.  In the bass arias, Mr. Williams is unusually elegant.  Bach’s bass arias cover a great deal of vocal territory, both in terms of bravura and tessitura.  Many modern singers are stretched by the lower and upper extensions required by Bach’s music, but Mr. Williams emerges unscathed, the lower register consistently warm and burnished and the highest notes reached with freedom.  Mr. Williams provides an example of Bach singing that ranks with the best on records.

Perhaps most impressive among the soloists is countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose performance of the alto arias is exquisite.  Completely absent in Mr. Davies’s voice are any signs of the characteristic ‘hoot’ heard in the singing of many English-speaking countertenors.  Missing, too, are the clumsy register breaks too often heard in countertenors’ performances of lower-lying music.  Bach’s music in Johannes-Passion does not plumb the lowest contralto depths, but Mr. Davies commands the tessitura winningly, producing firm, rounded tones in his lowest register without resorting to vulgar excursions into chest register.  As his music ascends, Mr. Davies’s voice unfolds with rare beauty, the tone silvery but never cold or androgynous.  In many performances of Johannes-Passion, the alto arias can be dreaded lapses in musical continuity: like much Baroque music, they are somewhat awkward for many modern singers, depriving mezzo-sopranos of opportunities to air their upper registers and challenging the few true contraltos with difficult approaches to higher lines.  Mr. Davies makes the alto arias in this performance gems that are eagerly sought.  So many young singers must be painstakingly coached through the music of Bach.  In this performance, Mr. Davies sounds as though he was born with Bach in his voice.

The role of Christ in Johannes-Passion is a monumental challenge.  Musically, passages of recitative give way to flowing arioso and bouts of coloratura that take the voice through a wide range to sepulchral lows.  Dramatically, a delicate balance must be found in order to maintain the dignity of the part without hectoring.  The danger in casting the part is that many of the lighter-voiced baritones and basses who specialize in singing Baroque repertory lack the declamatory power needed to sing Christ effectively and can only fake the lowest notes.  Singers who possess ideal weight of tone in the lower register often sing larger-scaled repertory, however, and can but approximate the florid singing.  Neal Davies is a welcome artist in whose voice these disparate qualities are combined.  Singing with the technical strength familiar from his acclaimed recording of Händel’s Saul, Mr. Davies brings the necessary gravitas to Christ’s music without sounding as though he is singing Hagen.  Mr. Davies sounds thoroughly comfortable in Christ’s music, an enviable accomplishment, and he phrases with obvious understanding of the text.  Some of the most famous baritones and basses of the past century have recorded Christ, and it is a testament to Mr. Davies’s talents that, in addition to more than holding his own among celebrated competitors, he offers a performance in this Johannes-Passion that both has enough power to please traditionalists and displays attention to historical nuances that will appeal to adherents to ideals of Baroque performance practices.

Ian Bostridge has ever been a singer who finds individual, sometimes idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems.  The Evangelist in Johannes-Passion is a role of operatic proportions that nonetheless demands unique qualifications in terms of vocal size and color.  So unique are these qualifications that there arose during the 20th Century a veritable Fach for ‘Evangelist tenors,’ enveloping artists of the calibre of Kurt Equiluz, a superbly gifted tenor who sang a wide repertory but is likely best remembered as an ideal Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  The tessitura of the Johannes-Passion Evangelist is uniformly high, unnervingly so for many traditional lyric tenors and indeed also for Mr. Bostridge on a couple of occasions.  The particular demand of the Johannes-Passion Evangelist is a pliable, heady timbre that avoids nasality and falsetto.  There is a slightly darker, more throaty sound to Mr. Bostridge’s voice than is common in singers of the Evangelist, but he adapts his voice to the part with skill and charm.  If the singer portraying Christ is charged with sounding determined and dignified without seeming petulant or self-righteous, the Evangelist is faced with choosing whether he is merely telling a story or actively participating in it.  Mr. Bostridge’s Evangelist is at the center of his narrative, achieving peaks of dramatic intensity before the pulsing turba choruses.  He rips into coloratura passages with command that seems as appropriate to Monteverdi’s Orfeo as to Bach’s Evangelist, and musical values are kept at an unquestionably high level.  Pursuit of dramatic verisimilitude occasionally compromises approaches to higher notes, with Mr. Bostridge sounding almost as though he has been taken by surprise by a few of Bach’s quicksilver ascents into the tenor’s upper register.  The singer’s German diction is crisp without seeming overwrought, though vowels can threaten nasality as Mr. Bostridge leans into the text.  Mr. Bostridge is a very musical singer, however, and this pays great dividends in Johannes-Passion.  His success in creating a character rather than just narrating from the sidelines of the drama is compelling, and in combining this with a capable, confident execution of the music Mr. Bostridge proves a probing and deeply intelligent Evangelist.

One of the wonders of Bach’s Passions is the way in which, even in flawed but feeling performances, they can touch the hearts of listeners regardless of religious affiliations.  Bach was a Lutheran writing for Lutheran congregations, but his Passions achieve universality through the towering emotional directness of the music rather than by the dogma of their texts.  Whether Christ is a Messiah, a prophet, or merely a man, he is in Bach’s Johannes-Passion a calm but disturbing source of musical perfection in an environment of profoundest imperfection.  It is impossible to know what symbolic associations beyond Christian liturgy the Passions may have held for Bach, but the prevailing aura of Johannes-Passion is not Christianity but humanity.  It is humanity that is abundantly present in this performance.  Maestro Layton and his expert team of soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists do not seek to stage a tent revival: rather, they convey through some of the most glorious music ever composed that men live, love, suffer betrayals, face the scorn of those who are meant to love them, endure judgments, and die, all with hope that there is greater purpose to these travails.  This Johannes-Passion does not demand spiritual ears, but it is an uncommonly spirited performance of one of the masterworks of Western music.