Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Bach's St. John Passion

Famously, as I have often mentioned before, Bach's music will survive almost anything. Recently, perhaps due to some raving critic, I bought a recording of Bach's St John Passion conducted in 2004 by Jos van Veldhoven. It is well recorded, and mainly well sung; I liked the Evangelist (Gerd Türk), the bass (Bas Ramselaar) and the soprano (Caroline Stam). I did not care much, as usual, for the counter-tenor (Peter de Groot). I am not a counter-tenor kind of person.

A glance at almost any Bach score will tell you that his is rich music. Bach liked many notes, and many layers of music and counterpoint. A Bach score is visibly very different and more complex compared with those by his contemporaries such as Handel or Vivaldi. It is therefore logical to imagine that, in his head as he wrote his major concertante works, Bach heard a rich sound. The St Matthew and St John Passions, as well as the Mass in B minor, need gravitas and an impressive depth of sound. A grave disadvantage of the current fad for “Budget Bach” is that in works such as the Passions, a handful of players just cannot sound rich and impressive. The Veldhoven performance seems to boast less than 20 participants in all, including “chorus”, instrumentalists, soloists and conductor. It all sounds too light-weight and super-economy. Poor old Bach; after suffering for decades with giant choirs and inflated orchestras, he now has to suffer from an augmented string quartet and an omnipresent plucking theorbo that at times threatens to dominate the instrumental line. Bach's Jews in their dialogue with Pontius Pilate in the St John Passion are audibly a nastier lot than the Jews in the St Matthew; here, alas, the jaunty light-weight chorus makes the Jews sound a jolly group of locals. The “orchestra” -- what there is of it --- plays discreetly and gives the impression of being a coven of musicologists trying to re-create 1726, or whenever.

Let us hope that the current fad for Budget Bach will run its course and we will eventually hear performances that are worthy of the character of the music. The vibrato-less singers who were all the rage in the 1980s and 90s seem to have died a welcome death, so there is hope for change over the decades to come. Most critics – with the honourable exception of some who write in the American Record Guide – go along with the fashion of the day. But critics die off and are re-cycled.

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