J.S. Bach composed his St John Passion during his first winter in Leipzig, in advance of the Good Friday Vespers service of 1724. It is written for an intimate ensemble (much more modest than the scoring of his later St Matthew Passion) and was originally to be performed in the Thomaskirche, being moved to the Nikolaikirche at short notice. The music is a vivid representation of Christ’s Passion as told in St John’s Gospel, constructed of recitatives and choruses, with commentary in reflective chorales, ariosos and arias. The music is, by nature of the story, inherently dramatic, and tells the story of Jesus’ death through the words of the Evangelist (tenor), Christ (bass) and a number of smaller roles including Pilate and Peter. Few who attended the service in the Nikolaikirche can have experienced, outside of the opera house, a work on the scale of the St John Passion, one that included such a large proportion of recitative. Today it, together with the St Matthew Passion, is regarded as a masterpiece of devout Lutheran church music, but in its day it must have sounded radical. That being said, the chorales (or “hymns”) within the work were designed to involve everyone in the performance, and these would have been familiar to the congregation (Melchior Vulpius’s melody, for instance) – whether or not they ended up singing them. Some of the most affective moments of the work occur in these chorales as well as in the arias, which are remarkable for their range of expression as well as their instrumentation. Take, for instance, the poignant use of the bass viol in the accompaniment of Jesus’ last words on the cross in the expressive aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’. A masterpiece of expression and theatricality such as the St John Passion requires a masterful interpretation; in this recording, under the baton of Ludwig Güttler – who shot to fame as a Baroque trumpeter – the Hallenser Madrigalisten and Virtuosi Saxoniae rise to the challenge, giving a “technically accomplished and
expressive” performance (Gramophone). They are joined by acclaimed tenor Christoph Genz in the role of the Evangelist and Egbert Junghanns as Jesus.
Bach’s Johannes Passion may be on a smaller scale than the Matthäus Passion, it is by no means less monumental or dramatic. This reissue of a Berlin Classics recording achieves with its relatively small ensemble and choir an intimate yet powerful performance in which the drama of Christ’s suffering is presented in deeply moving arias and chorales.
Played on modern instruments the Virtuosi Saxoniae under Ludwig Güttler adhere to the principles of Historically Informed Performance Practice. The soloists include Christoph Genz, Christiane Oelze and Egbert Junghanns.
Full sung texts are available on www.brilliantclassics.com.