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Next year is the tercentenary of the first performance of Bach’s St John Passion on Good Friday 1724, so expect a flurry of new interpretations. Unfortunately, this live recording does not cut the mustard, and Nicholas McGegan and his Cantata Collective could have done with not jumping the gun a year early.
Many of the movements are far too slow. ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’, for one, is unbearably laboured. At this tempo, the dissonances in the oboes barely register, and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is forced somewhat to ‘oversing’ – every note is unnecessarily thickened in projection and resonance. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ is exhaustingly slow, too. Bach’s music is to represent ‘joyful footsteps’ but the sung semiquavers conjure fatigue over any kind of glee. The flute-playing, however, is lovely, if predictable in articulation. More problematic than the chosen tempos is simply how messy much of the playing is. By all means, conjure the bloodthirsty mob in ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige!’, but need ensemble be sacrificed so mercilessly? While a mob might be unruly by nature, surely Bach’s counterpoint does most of the work for us. A similar story plagues ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ – need the rushing of tempted souls be quite so scrappy? The intonation of the muted violins in ‘Erwäge’ is beyond sour, and tenor Derek Chester struggles around the three-minute mark to stay centred in what is, admittedly, one of the trickiest melismas in the business.
Many of McGegan’s chorales do not work for me either. They are too literally articulated, in both fermata and consonant; though the sound world of community and heartfelt congregation is luxuriously captured. Thomas Cooley is an interesting Evangelist, and there are moments of glaring intensity. Paul Max Tipton’s Jesus is particularly impressive, and though he identifies as a bass-baritone, his bottom Fs have more than enough meat for me.
The Passion’s emotional heart, ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, redeems a long stretch of mediocre music-making. The viola da gamba-playing of Elisabeth Reed is soulful. Her tone is round and woody, and her phrases are delicately shaped. Nussbaum Cohen fairs much better here than in ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’; his narrow vibrato is a gorgeous complement to the gamba’s plangent song. A final note: while I’m all for live recordings, removing the chair squeak from the movement’s opening seconds is surely a no-brainer, with little integrity to lose.
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