ST JOHN PASSION CD REVIEW
MALCOLM RILEY, GRAMOPHONE, APRIL 2017
Robert Murray tenor Evangelist; Ashley Riches bass-baritone Christus; Andrew Ashwin baritone Pilatus; Sophie Bevan, Rosemary Zolynski sopranos; Robin Blaze countertenor; Benjamin Hulett, Robin Pietà tenors; Neal Davies bass-baritone; Crouch End Festival Chorus; Bach Camerata I David Temple
Chandos CHSA5183 (110'·DDD·T)
For the past 45 years the benchmark recording of Bach's St John Passion sung in English has been that conducted by Britten for Decca (recorded in Snape Maltings in April 1971). An all-star cast, headed by Peter Pears as the Evangelist, were ably supported by the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir (now sadly destroyed by myopic educational folly) and the English Chamber Orchestra, singing Pears’ and Imogen Holst's (then recent) translation. Now Chandos has grasped the mantle and headed to St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, there to set down the first recording of Neil Jenkins's New Novello Choral Edition English translation, which builds on the earlier doughty efforts of John Troutbeck (1896) and TA Lacey (1929). I must confess that—given a long-held preference for listening to (and performing) works in their original tongue—I was prepared to scoff at such an affront to Bach's intentions. However, by the end of the opening chorus and the Evangelist's first gripping appearance I was completely hooked, being agreeably surprised at the immediacy of meaning. It helps that Jenkins has taken such care to match many of Bach's starting consonants; that rhyming schemes are maintained wherever possible, and that each of Bach's syllables has an English equivalent of similar stress.
In these days of 'historically informed', one-to-a-part Bach some potential buyers might baulk at the prospect of listening to a large chorus of one hundred: indeed, there are a few places where their sheer heft overwhelms the two dozen members of the Bach Camerata (who play at A=415Hz). However, one will struggle to find more committed, well-balanced, agile and crisp singing than that of Crouch End Festival Chorus, who are on top form throughout. Under David Temple's inspired direction they can switch in an instant from a focused fervour (in their chorales) to the most vengeful scornfulness imaginable. Temple favours brisk tempos, constantly driving the restless dramatic undercurrent. This energetic impulse is leapt on by the Evangelist, Robert Murray, whose light, expressive approach is a long way from Pears' laboured mannerisms. Ashley Riches, too, captures Jesus' utterances with a heart-breaking simplicity. Frankly, none of the soloists could be bettered, nor the superb continuo team, led by organist Peter Jaekel. It is also worth buying this recording just to savour Reiko Ichise's viola da gamba obbligato. Congratulations to all concerned on producing such a bouyant, absorbing and sonically thrilling recording.