Itinerant Baroque-specialist conductor Alexander Weimann leads a fantastic new recording of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion.
What makes this two-CD set so compelling is its overall proportion and balance. Bach’s musical setting is dramatic yet intimate. Some conductors prefer to highlight the drama, others prefer to focus on the intimate power of the Christian Passion story, which outlines how Jesus had to be condemned, suffer and die in order for humankind to be saved from its sins. (To this day, churches commonly read or re-enact the Passion on Good Friday.)
Weimann achieves the ideal middle ground by relying on Bach’s very carefully laid-out text and music.
The balance starts with great, finely nuanced, never forced vocal performances in the alternation of narration in recitative form (tenor Jan Kobow, in fine, light voice), with arias or ariosos (a strong trio of basses representing Jesus, disciple Peter and Pontius Pilate) and choruses (12 voices, including the three solo basses, all made up of fine soloists — including Torontonians Shannon Mercer and Lawrence Wiliford).
The singing is underpinned by a gorgeous score, rendered by period instruments well played by members of Montreal’s Arion Baroque Orchestra, led by Weimann at the organ.
One can enjoy the finely burnished surface of the music, then listen again and again to take in how Bach’s instruments are individually chosen to convey particular moods and images.
This is the case in all fine Baroque music, but the depictions are particularly striking in Bach’s meticulous handiwork, which includes all sorts of mathematical oppositions and symmetries designed to underline the events surrounding the Crucifixion and focus on the believer’s own faith journey through all the tumult.
The St. John Passion, probably written in 1724, shortly after Bach arrived in Leipzig to become the music director at St. Thomas’s Church, is one of the great monuments of Western sacred music. This fine recording does it full justice.
You can find full details on the recording, as well as audio samples, here.
I feel compelled to add one little bit of extra commentary regarding the Passion stories.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve run into several instances of listeners as well as professional musicians mentioning what a shame it is that the texts of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions are anti-Semitic.
I find this an alarming misunderstanding of what these great works are all about.
Because the majority of classical concertgoers no longer attend religious services, and hear the Passions in concert rather than in a devotional setting, the texts, drawn from the Bible, are heard out of their religious and historical contexts.
For the faithful, these texts are a historical record central to their faith and are not meant to be extended as judgments on the here-and-now. These texts are about eternal human folly and divine redemption, not about praising or condemning particular sects at given points in time.
Anti-Semitism, or any other kind of religious or ethnic prejudice, occurs when people — often with little understanding or appreciation of religion or history — apply stereotypes and clichés to all people living around them in the modern world.
All too often, sacred music presented in concert is performed without an introduction that outlines the context it was originally meant to be experienced in. That is background we should no longer take for granted.