Ian Bostridge Is the Star in Bach’s St. John Passion

United StatesUnited States J. S. Bach, St. John Passion: Ian Bostridge (Tenor), Neal Davies (Bass-Baritone), Karina Gauvin (Soprano), Damien Guillon (Countertenor), Nicholas Phan (Tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Bass-Baritone), Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, Bernard Labadie (Music Director and Conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 25.3.2012 (SSM)

When MP3 players were in their infancy, with five gigabytes of free space, compressing the music data down to a low-quality 125kb allowed storage of about 100 CDs. My solution for storing opera CDs was to not record the recitatives. In so many Handel and Vivaldi operas, the long texts, nearly spoken, with only a basso continuo to support the singer, were a waste of precious disk space. If I wanted to follow the opera’s story, I would do that listening to the CD at home with a libretto in hand.

But what about the Bach cantatas? I tried stripping out recitatives in a few, but when I listened to them I felt like I was listening to the Best of Bach or Bach for the Unborn. Bach somehow was different. If the text was long but more meaningful or poetic than the usual prose, he would call in extra instruments to enhance the libretto. What a shame it would have been to miss out on this miraculous recitativo accompagnato from BWV 61:

[wpaudio url=”https://www.seenandheard-international.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Nun-Komm-der-Heiden-Heiland.mp3″ text=”Bach BWV 61″ dl=”0″]

Why am I bringing this up? Because the particular success of this performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion came from the moving, pure and precise voice of the Evangelist, sung by the eminent Ian Bostridge. His captivating voice in the recitatives was a pleasure to listen to and almost made the musical parts seem secondary to the text. He did what Bach himself did by emphasizing key words and giving them extra color. For example, in the recitative “Da verleugnete Petrus,” there is the text, “wept most bitterly.” Bach stretches these words to simulate the sounds of weeping, and Ian Bostridge rendered them so pathetically that it indeed brought tears to one’s eyes.

The other soloists were competent and often more. Countertenor Damien Guillon didn’t quite project his voice far enough in the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden,” but did give a solid reading of “Es ist Vollbracht.” This aria is one of the few, if any, by Bach that actually has the soloist join in at the coda after the instrumental recapitulation. Karina Gauvin gave a strong account of “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” one of the few upbeat pieces in a work that is, even for Bach, unusually dark. Neal Davies as Jesus had little to sing, but gave a needed authority to the role. Hanno Müller-Brachmann in “Mein teurer Heiland lass dich fragen“was able to maintain a nice balance when the chorus joined in to interweave their voices with his in a Chorale. Nicholas Phan sang well, but inevitably suffered in comparison to Bostridge.

The chorus and orchestra sang and played with a comfortable fluidity. Only in the opening chorus were they out of synch, which made me think that I was listening to the beginning rumbles of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation. This disconnect may have occurred due to Labadie starting the performance before the orchestra was quite ready. But from this point on, the singers and instrumentalists provided a firm ground to support this admirable production of what has always been considered, perhaps unfairly, as the St. Matthew Passion’s weaker sibling.

Stan Metzger