26 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – JOHANNES-PASSION (J. Gilchrist, M. Rose, E. Watts, S. Connolly, A. Kennedy, C. Purvues; AAM Records AAM002)

Johann Sebastian Bach - JOHANNES-PASSION, BWV 245 (AAM Records AAM002)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 (1724 version)—James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Elizabeth Watts (soprano soloist), Sarah Connolly (alto soloist), Andrew Kennedy (tenor soloist), Christopher Purves (bass soloist), Philippa Hyde (Ancilla), Richard Latham (Petrus), James Geer (Servus); Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr, direction and harpsichord [Recorded at Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, 1 – 5 April 2013; AAM Records AAM002; 2CD, 104:37; Available from AAM, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Two of the few things upon which virtually all people with musical inclinations agree are that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the supreme artistic geniuses of both his own time and all of human history and that his Passions are the monumental foundations upon which the subsequent masterworks of Western choral music were constructed. In the esteem of those for whom Mozart is superfluous, Beethoven bombastic, Brahms uninspired, and Mahler pompous, Bach remains original and undeniably important; a talent slightly too pedagogical, perhaps, but a legitimate and individual one nonetheless. The problem with Bach's Passions is that, since they were rediscovered and returned to circulation by Mendelssohn in the first half of the 19th Century, neither musicians nor musicologists have known quite what to make of them. Just enough details of the circumstances of their genesis are known with relative certainty to empower substantive performances, but the many unanswered questions leave holes in the understanding of these enthralling works that generations of performers and scholars have sought to fill with a dizzying array of ideas. As the catalysts of progress, ideas are invaluable, but in the context of recordings they grow thin upon repeated hearing. The performance nourished by ideas alone is prone to weakness, and the discriminating listener may ultimately prefer robust ignorance to an informed anemia. This recording of Bach's Johannes-Passion by the venerated Academy of Ancient Music thus fills an unspoken need. The project has no shortage of ideas, but the animation and organic flow of the performance liberate the listener to follow the current of the music without feeling compelled to take notes for a quiz on 'authentic' performance practices. There is more to authenticity than gut strings, valveless horns, and unequal temperament. There is authenticity of spirit, of course, and there can be little doubt that Bach's underlying agenda in the Johannes-Passion was to bring the congregations for whom the music was created closer to their faith. The apparent agenda of this recording is to bring the listener closer to Bach, and all of the tools of historically-informed practices are merely the mechanics by which musical wonders are wrought. It is a parable of sorts: filling the mind with the academia of period-appropriate techniques enables commendable stylishness, but only opening the heart to the intricacies of the music beyond key signatures and chord progressions permits the kind of connection between composer and performer than can be discerned by the listener for whom whether the orchestra is tuned to a = 392 Hz or a = 415 Hz is no more significant than the color of the conductor's hair. Few performances and even fewer recordings of Bach's music meaningfully unite ideas and ideals, and in its mastery of this elusive chemistry alone this recording of the Johannes-Passion is an artistic triumph.

Directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, whose mastery of the keyboard music of Bach has been revealed in acclaimed recordings of the great works of that repertoire, the performances of the choristers and instrumentalists confirm that the Academy of Ancient Music’s long-standing adroitness in Bach’s music has only grown more impressive in the forty-one years since the ensemble’s founding. Joining Mr. Egarr, organist Alastair Ross, harpsichordist Jan Waterfield, and lutenist William Carter form a continuo battery that propels the performance from peak to peak without momentum ever being sacrificed to effects imposed upon rather than drawn from the score. The string playing is consistently warm-toned and formidably secure of intonation, the blends achieved among the violins, viola, violone, and cello creating walls of sound in extroverted passages and soulfully delicate sonorities in moments of greatest feeling. Reiko Ichese’s playing of the viola da gamba obbligato in ‘Es ist vollbracht’ is gorgeous, and the viole d’amore are played with eloquent virtuosity by Pavlo Beznosiuk and Jane Rogers. The glowing tone that Joseph Crouch coaxes from his cello in the bass aria ‘Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen’ creates a compelling dialogue with the singer, and the wind players—Rachel Brown on flute, Alfredo Bernardini on oboe and oboe da caccia, Lars Henriksson on oboe and oboe d’amore, and Ursula Leveaux on bassoon—give performances of uncompromising excellence. Despite the presence of many accomplished period-instrument ensembles on today’s Early Music scene, few performances of either of Bach’s canonical Passions enjoy orchestral playing of the unvarying quality offered by the Academy of Ancient Music players, but it is nothing less than the superb choral and solo singing deserve.

One of the most heated debates in Baroque music involves contrasting arguments about the sizes of choirs that are ideal for Bach’s music. In recent years, the prevailing preference in performances (and recordings) of the cantatas and Passions, rooted in aggressive scholarship that has focused on cryptic markings in Bach’s manuscripts and the often extravagant complexities of his contrapuntal writing that are so difficult for larger choirs to articulate cleanly, has been for one-to-a-part or similarly small ensembles. Among the few direct or incidental details of Bach’s professional life that are beyond question are the facts that, during his tenure in Leipzig, Bach significantly expanded the choir school over which he presided [the Thomanerchor, the standing choir of the Thomaskirche—one of the four churches of which he was de facto Music Director in his capacity as Thomaskantor—employed sixteen boy choristers at the time of Bach’s death] and that the spaces for which his Passions were composed were anything but small. Anyone who knows Bach’s Passions and has stood in the Nikolaikirche, where the Johannes-Passion was first performed in 1724, or the Thomaskirche can but marvel at the supposition that, even if supplemented by the soloists, a mere handful of voices filled these sanctuaries with the immense sounds that his orchestrations suggest that Bach wanted in the powerful opening chorus and turba numbers. Sixteen strong for this recording, the dimensions of the AAM Choir incorporate scholarship with a level-headed realization of the needs of the music. The choristers launch the performance with a persuasive account of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist,’ the bold sounds that they produce filling Bach’s vocal lines excitingly. The cutthroat intensity of their singing of ‘Jesum von Nazareth’ is thrilling. Starting with a poised, credibly congregational account of ‘O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße,’ the choristers bring fervor but touching simplicity to the chorales. Their singing of ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’ at the start of Part Two pulses with guilt, and the phrasing in ‘Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten’ underscores the awe of the text. The irony conveyed in ‘Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig’ is bracing, and the sheer brutality of ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige’ creates unnerving tension. In ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ and ‘Mein teuer Heiland, laß dich fragen,’ the bass arias with chorus, the Choir’s singing is spellbinding. Ending the performance with the same energy and wide-ranging expressivity with which it began, the choristers sing ‘Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein’ spiritedly. It is not often that a recording of any dramatic work, sacred or secular, plays out with the same impact that it might brandish in a live performance, but it also is not often that a choir sings Bach’s music with the integrity and unpretentious artistry that AAM’s choristers devote to this performance of Johannes-Passion.

Completing the circuit established by the exceptional performances of the orchestra and choir, the solo singing strikes electric sparks that ignite the fuel generated by their colleagues’ probing musicianship. The smaller parts of the Ancilla, Petrus, and the Servus are taken with distinction by soprano Philippa Hyde, baritone Richard Latham, and tenor James Geer, each of whom gives an assured performance of music that is often sung inadequately. Baritone Ashley Riches sings commanding as Pilatus, his firm voice, burly timbre, and broadly-inflected delivery of text ably conveying Pilate’s pride, indignation, exasperation, and ultimate bewilderment in his judgment of Christ. His singing of Pilate’s ‘Nehmet ihr ihn hin und kreuziget ihn; denn ich finde keine Schuld an ihm’ crackles with annoyance with the single-mindedness of the crowd, and the cynicism of ‘Sehet, das ist euer König’ is depicted with a striking darkening of the tone. Christopher Purves artfully adapts his Herculean voice to the scale of Bach’s music, and his technique proves equal to the most strenuous demands of the bass arias. He sings ‘Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen’ with dignity, and his performances of both of the arias with chorus are subtle but gratifyingly red-blooded. One of the most elegant young artists of his generation, tenor Andrew Kennedy sings ‘Ach, mein Sinn, wo willt du endlich hin’ with passion that seems to issue directly from a broken heart, his beautiful timbre suffused with torment derived from the text. ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ is sung with similar insightfulness, and the arioso ‘Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet’ glistens with sadness and shame, Mr. Kennedy cladding the phrase ‘was willst du deines Ortes tun’ in his most incandescent tones. Having devoted much of her creative energy during recent seasons to denser music like that of Mahler and Richard Strauss has only deepened the flair and dramatic concentration with which mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sings the music of Bach. The naturalness of her phrasing in tandem with the oboes in ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ is peerless, and she wittily uses the rhythmic figurations to impart a sense of the freedom evoked in the text. The profundity that Ms. Connolly brings to her performance of ‘Es ist vollbracht,’ the weight of feeling never upsetting her preservation of the integrity of the vocal line, is wrenching. The breadth of sorrow is tempered by a captivating element of spiritual victory, communicated by the unsentimental simplicity of Ms. Connolly’s utterance and the unassailable pulchritude of her voice. Soprano Elizabeth Watts aspires to Ms. Connolly’s accomplishments in phrasing with her assured performance of the aria with flute ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls,’ which she manages with bright tone and precision. She sings ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren’—one of Bach’s most beautiful arias for soprano—with confidence and commitment, shaping the phrase ‘dein Jesu ist tot’ with poised dignity that reaches the heart without indulging in unseemly sentimentality.

The finest interpreters of the rôles of Christ and the Evangelist have found in Bach’s music the struggles, suffering, and resilience of men, not symbols or archetypes. Among British singers, perhaps no bass has come nearer to perfection in his portrayal of Christ than Gwynne Howell. Making even the somber authority of his singing a component of an affecting vulnerability, bass Matthew Rose rivals Howell’s heroic but refreshingly human performance. Mr. Rose is a Christ who sounds genuinely hurt by the accusations he faces, and there is an acutely emotive suggestion of weariness in his performance. This is a Christ unafraid to express doubt, fear, and uncertainty—and, thus, one of very personal charisma and relevance. In ‘Stecke dein Schwert in die Scheide,’ Mr. Rose’s Christ seems stung by Peter’s violence: his admonishment is disquieted rather than scolding. Throughout the performance, Mr. Rose looks beyond the obvious qualities of Bach’s characterization of Christ, bringing an individual interpretation that proves fascinating. Vocally, not one note of Christ’s music is beyond Mr. Rose’s capacity, and he encounters no technical challenge that he is not capable of meeting. When the voice must move, Mr. Rose reveals considerable flexibility, and his lower register is rich and unforced. Critically, however, he creates a thoughtful, winningly masculine Christ who ultimately is all the more extraordinary for in so many ways being just another man. He is the perfect musical and dramatic partner for the Evangelist of James Gilchrist. The legacy of Sir Peter Pears in the Evangelist’s music retains great influence, and the aristocratic sangfroid and abiding intelligence of Mr. Gilchrist’s singing equal those of Pears. Mr. Gilchrist’s voice is a far more attractive natural instrument, however, with little of the nasality and none of the pinching in the upper register that were heard in Pears’s singing, and Mr. Gilchrist’s performance wholly avoids the prissiness and artifice that, both in performance and on recordings, could keep Pears’s Evangelist at arm’s length. Among many instances of sword’s-edge incisiveness and musical distinction, Mr. Gilchrist’s singing of the phrase ‘Da gedachte Petrus an die Worte Jesu und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich’ is unforgettable, and the ethereal prescience of his recounting of the events of the Passion is stimulating. There is a hint of detachment, as though the pain that he feels is too great to endure if faced head-on, but this is an effective dramatic device that heightens the understanding of Christ and his destiny being both of and beyond the world of men. Mr. Gilchrist’s singing is flooded with tenderness in the passage in which he describes Christ taking leave of those whom he loves, ‘Es stund aber bei dem Kreuze Jesu seine Mutter.’ The mystery of his singing of ‘diewell das Grab nahe war’ gives way to a glimmer of hope, and throughout the performance Mr. Gilchrist lends his singing a zealous, visionary affection. The voice responds to Bach’s music as though it were composed specially for Mr. Gilchrist, his command of the famously grueling tessitura never faltering. By avoiding an over-reliance on falsetto, Mr. Gilchrist portrays a strong-willed but broken man who witnesses both an unfathomably momentous spiritual event and the death of a man who is not merely his teacher but also his friend.

The Johannes-Passion is not a long work, but a performance in which the artists strive to present the score not as a lofty dogmatic exposition but as a musical depiction of an unique exploration of love, devotion, and the bitterness of betrayal and loss can make it seem shorter still. In this recording featuring the Academy of Ancient Music and a cast that ranks with the best ever assembled for a performance of this work, the pace of tragedy is so inexorably intensified that the Passion prophecies are fulfilled in the blinking of an eye. Still, there are dozens of moments that linger in the ears and in the heart, none more so than those in which Andrew Kennedy asks of contrite humanity, ‘what will you do for your part,’ and Sarah Connolly pronounces, candidly, ‘it is finished.’ These are points at which music and life intersect as meaningfully as Art is able to articulate, and they are rendered on this recording as directly as can be imagined. Leave religion in the pews and conversations about what is an authentic approach to Bach’s music in the lecture halls: these artists mean to tell a story, unexaggerated and impartial, and how puissantly they succeed.