15 April 2013

CD REVIEW: J.S. Bach—JOHANNES-PASSION (Mulroy, Brook, Lunn, Wilkinson; Dunedin Consort; Linn CKD 419]

Johann Sebastian Bach: JOHANNES-PASSION [Linn CKD 419]

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245—N. Mulroy (Evangelist, tenor arias), M. Brook (Christ, bass arias), J. Lunn (Ancilla, soprano arias), C. Wilkinson (alto), R. Davies (Petrus, Pilatus), S. Chambers (Servus); University of Glasgow Chapel Choir, Dunedin Consort; John Butt [Recorded in Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, 10 – 12 September and 2 November 2012; Linn CKD 419]

Central to the deliberations of any organization that resolves to perform Bach’s Johannes-Passion—after making the critical determination of by whom the bills will be paid—is choosing which edition of the monumental work to employ.  Like Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Bach’s Johannes-Passion exists in multiple versions, with differences both large and small among the respective editions.  Beginning with the first performance of the work in Leipzig in 1724, Johannes-Passion—the earliest of his extant Passions, though there is evidence suggesting that earlier scores have been lost—is a work to which Bach turned his editorial pen on numerous occasions, making changes throughout the 1730s and 1740s to all aspects of the work.  It is likely that Bach, as practical a composer for the church as Händel was for the theatre, adapted his Passions to the strengths of individual performers in successive performances.  This creates challenges for modern interpreters, as they are charged with matching the editions they choose for performance to the abilities of their soloists and instrumentalists.  In terms of the edition of Bach’s score used, this recording by the Dunedin Consort brings something completely unique to the Johannes-Passion discography: taking as its starting point a manuscript score for a 1739 performance that seemingly never took place, this performance incorporates additional music and material to reconstruct the full Passion Liturgy as it would have been performed at Leipzig during Bach’s tenure there.  Musically and dramatically, this performance offers a compelling Johannes-Passion set within a context that presents new insights into the historical provenance of the score and its composer’s efforts at revising it in order to create the most moving account of Christ’s suffering and salvation.

As in their previous recordings of Baroque repertory, the players of the Dunedin Consort prove themselves to be instrumentalists of extraordinary ability.  Their skill for playing the music of Bach will come as a surprise to no one who has heard their recording of the Matthäus-Passion, but their achievements on this recording are perhaps even more eloquent.  Those players who contribute solos to arias combine with the respective vocal soloists with ideal phrasing and attention to the nuances of the texts.  In addition to Dunedin Consort’s choral concertists and ripienists, the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir (directed by James Grossmith) and a congregational choir comprised of amateur singers combine to convincingly vary the sizes and textures of the choral movements.  It is known that congregations would have participated in the Passion chorales during Bach’s lifetime, and no other recording of the Johannes-Passion makes the sense of full congregational participation more palpable.  Listeners who know the Johannes-Passion intimately undoubtedly feel inspired to sing along with Bach’s beautifully simple but moving chorales: this performance not only renews this inspiration but issues an open invitation to the armchair chorister.

John Butt both directs this performance and plays the harpsichord and organ preludes that frame the Passion Liturgy.  A Bach interpreter whose credentials need no endorsement, Maestro Butt nonetheless brings to this performance of the Johannes-Passion a drive and commitment that confirm his status as one of today’s most dynamic conductors of Bach’s music.  Most refreshingly, Maestro Butt allows the integrity of his music-making to prove his points rather than attempting to justify his scholarship in tomes of editorial notes.  The liner notes that accompany this recording are informative, but Maestro Butt allows the questions posed by the uncertainty about the provenance of Bach’s first performances of Johannes-Passion and nearly three centuries of traditions developed and discarded to be answered by the performance.  Musicological achievements aside, Maestro Butt impresses anew solely as a musician.

Superb playing, choral singing, recording quality, and musical scholarship are for naught if a recording of Johannes-Passion lacks vocal soloists who rise to the occasion.  A particular hallmark of Dunedin Consort’s previous recordings of choral repertory has been the consistency of vocal excellence among the soloists, and this recording of Johannes-Passion proves worthy of its brethren in the Dunedin discography in this regard.  Even smaller, ancillary roles are assigned to singers of distinction, giving the performance increased musical and dramatic continuity.  Especially impressive is baritone Robert Davies, whose ringing voice and crisp diction lend his convincingly differentiated portrayals of the apostle Peter and Pontius Pilate depth and authority.

Joanne Lunn’s bright but not insubstantial soprano voice shines through Bach’s music like early-morning sunlight.  The technical aplomb with which Ms. Lunn sails through the considerable difficulties of the soprano arias in Johannes-Passion is remarkable, but it is the sincerity of her singing that is its greatest quality.  It is sometimes suggested that the music of Bach is more academically than emotionally effective, especially when compared with the often more extroverted music of Händel, but Ms. Lunn’s singing reveals that, when the vein is tapped by an insightful interpreter, Bach’s music bleeds with extraordinary emotional impact.  Ms. Lunn conveys the anguish inherent in much of her music with eloquence but without drooping, tonally or dramatically: she gets at the heart of each aria, bringing its sentiment to the surface without ever sacrificing musical poise or the purity of her vocal line.  Her performance of the tricky ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is superb, the daring chromatic writing rightly employed to heighten the soulful impact of the aria.  Among many fine recorded performances of the soprano arias, Ms. Lunn’s singing on this recording is unique in its youthful vibrancy and tasteful delivery of Bach’s deceptively difficult music.

Mezzo-soprano Claire Wilkinson is among the ranks of Bach singers whose voices are lighter in timbre than those of the contraltos of generations past, when singers like Gladys Ripley, Kathleen Ferrier, and Helen Watts frequented performances of Bach’s Passions in the British Isles.  The compensatory flexibility of Ms. Wilkinson’s voice is exceptional, however, and the assurance with which she sings her arias is wonderful.  Some of the most gorgeously plaintive moments in Johannes-Passion fall to the alto soloist, and Ms. Wilkinson never disappoints with her understated but intensely musical performance.  The loveliness of Ms. Wilkinson’s tone is complemented by the accuracy of her execution of Bach’s divisions, and the elegance of her phrasing suggests a memorable Lieder singer in the making.  Perhaps because German vowels are somewhat more congenial for English-speaking singers than those of Romance languages, Ms. Wilkinson’s diction is beautifully-inflected, following the cadences of speech effectively.  Ms. Wilkinson manages to combine heart and voice unusually movingly in Bach’s alto arias, not least in the extraordinary ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden.’

Matthew Brook sings both Jesus and the bass arias, a formidable challenge musically and dramatically.  Fortunately, Mr. Brook is up to the task.  Judging from the arias for bass in his Passions and the B-minor Mass, it is apparent that Bach enjoyed collaborations with bass soloists of exceptional abilities during his career, and Mr. Brook’s singing of the bass arias in this performance fulfils Bach’s expectations as set down in the score of Johannes-Passion.  Mr. Brook’s bass possesses gratifying weight of tone without heaviness, his technique permitting him to sing even Bach’s most demanding passages with no suggestions of lugubriousness.  As Christ, Mr. Brook proves tremendously effective, singing commandingly but also creating an aura of delightful affability: it is implying no sacrilege to suggest that Mr. Brook’s Christ sounds like the sort of fellow with whom one might enjoyably share a pint at the corner pub.  In many ways, Johannes-Passion is a deeply personal work, one in which Christ’s crucifixion is depicted not so much as a symbolically significant event but as one to which observers react individually.  Charisma is an important quality for the singer who portrays Christ, and Mr. Brook succeeds as few Christs on records have in depicting a figure who might legitimately inspire the affection and devotion expressed in Bach’s music.

Singing both the Evangelist and the tenor arias is Nicholas Mulroy, who also sang the tenor arias in the recent Hyperion recording of Johannes-Passion conducted by Stephen Layton.  Taking on both the Evangelist’s music and the tenor arias is a taxing assignment, and Mr. Mulroy confirms his importance as a Bach singer by performing so winningly on this recording.  Mr. Mulroy improves upon his fluent singing of the tenor arias on the Hyperion recording, inspired in the present performance to seemingly effortless feats of virtuosity.  The tenor’s aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ is as passionate an air for the tenor voice as was composed during the 18th Century, and Mr. Mulroy sings it with complete technical fluency and a firm, beautiful voice brimming with emotion.  To the Evangelist’s music Mr. Mulroy brings a darker, more substantial tone than many Evangelists of past generations possessed, which permits him to credibly engage the listener as a warm-blooded participant in the Passion rather than a chilly observer or celebrant.  The Apostles by whom the Passion is recounted in the Gospels were friends and followers who dearly loved Christ, after all, and a man and artist as sincere in his faith as history and his music suggest that Bach was can hardly have failed to view the Passions recorded by Christ’s Apostles as very personal histories rather than mere dogmatic propaganda.  Mr. Mulroy takes the treacherous tessitura of the Evangelist’s music in stride, applying a beautiful head resonance in the highest passages that avoids the falsetto employed by many singers of the part.  Mr. Mulroy’s performance fully justifies the decision to assign both the Evangelist’s music and the tenor arias to a single singer, a decision that in many instances would undermine the effectiveness of both parts.

There is a popular hymn in the American South that extols ‘what a friend we have in Jesus.’  One of Bach’s greatest achievements in Johannes-Passion is that one need not believe either the facts or the implications of the Passion story in order to be genuinely moved by the manner in which it is told.  The histrionic power of Bach’s music is such that even a tepid performance can be effective.  The present performance benefits not only from the legitimate scholarship and sophisticated advocacy of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort but also from an especially fine cast of soloists and gifted choristers giving of their considerable bests.  Johannes-Passion is an acknowledged masterpiece, but even the greatest works of art can grow greater still when re-evaluated with care.  A definitive performing version of Johannes-Passion will likely remain elusive, but in a performance such as this one, in which Bach’s music is sung by an Evangelist and a Christ of uncommon communicative gifts, everything simply sounds and feels right.