The music of Bach's 'St. John Passion', which the composer wrote for Holy Week in 1724 immediately after his appointment as cantor of St Thomas's Church in Leipzig, still retains all its freshness and vitality nearly 300 years later, and is a true Baroque delight. The two main choruses Herr, unser Herrscher and Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine form the beginning and culmination of a large-scale orchestral and vocal structure in which Bach reveals his absolute mastery of polyphony. Inwardly reflective chorales are as much interwoven into the events of the Passion as the haunting arias which comment on the biblical texts of the Gospel of St John. Throughout this solemn Passion oratorio, there is a constant emphasis on Baroque musical magnificence. What makes this live recording of the concert version of March 7, 2015 in the Herkulessaal of the Munich Residenz so special? The fresh voices of the young and excellent vocal soloists, the regularly praised "astonishing three-dimensionality" and "crystalline clarity" of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks under the direction of Peter Dijkstra and, of course, the renowned period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln.
The Amsterdam Bach Soloists comprise an ensemble of ten or so musicians. They play modern instruments but base their musical approach on ''an undogmatic use of authentic interpreting practice, so that the rich potentialities of the modern instruments can be combined with the baroque way of performing, which is in keeping with the accomplishments of Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concertgebouw Orchestra''. Most of the players are, in fact, drawn from the Concertgebouw, though there are some from Frans Bruggen's Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Nowadays Bach's didactic but very beautiful The Art of Fugue, is widely regarded as a work for solo harpsichord. Bach himself left no precise indication concerning instrumentation but the music was engraved in open score which places each individual voice or strand of the texture on a separate stave. This practice was not uncommon in contrapuntal keyboard works and is one of several features pointing towards the solo harpsichord as being Bach's most likely intention. Nevertheless, since 1924, when the Swiss musician Wolfgang Graeser set the canons and fugues for various combinations of instruments, the practice of performing The Art of Fugue with a mixed ensemble has remained popular.
As the mysterious opening bars of the Kyrie gradually emerge into the light, we know that this recording of Mozart’s glorious Great Mass in C minor is a special one: the tempi perfect, the unfolding drama of the choral writing so carefully judged, and, above it all, the crystalline beauty of soloist Carolyn Sampson’s soprano, floating like a ministering angel. Masaaki Suzuki’s meticulous attention to detail, so rewarding in his remarkable Bach recordings, shines throughout this disc, the playing alert, the choir responsive, the soloists thrilling. And there is the bonus of an exhilarating Exsultate, Jubilate with Sampson on top form.
This set includes two of the rarest and hardest to find of all recordings: the 1958-59 version of the Bach Cello Suites by Janos Starker – the one everyone says his later recordings cannot match – and the extremely beautiful performance of Bach's unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas – the one that Japanese collectors pay 3-digit dollar prices for – in outstanding EMI Digital Re-Masterings.
The second section of the cantata is a long vocal section opening with four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) singing together. Many recordings of this cantata use a choir for this section, but recent recordings have featured a one-voice-per-part strategy here, as does this one. The texture of this is excellent, although the balance between the voices wavers a bit. The tenor, bass and soprano each have ariosos within this section. Tenor Knut Schock enters a bit heavily, but his voice is quite appropriate for the melancholy tone of his section. Bass Bas Ramselarr has a slightly dark, yet clear voice. His section features a delightful accompaniment by the two recorders - in an interesting counterpoint with such a deep voice - and, again, the balance is slightly off, his voice sometimes drowning out the recorders just a bit…
Here, again, Brilliant Classics has licensed recordings of the passions, masses and other works. The St. Matthew and St. John passions are good recordings by the Brandenburg Consort and the King's College Choir; I find these two passions to be a bit weak, and this is a shame.