St. John Passion
Johann Sebastian Bach
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
Harmonium Mundi. $45.

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By Stephen Platten

One of the most powerful moments of Holy Week is the proclamation — either spoken or in the remarkable plainchant setting by Victoria — of John’s account of Jesus’ passion. But equally remarkable is the St. John Passion commissioned to be written by the new Thomaskantor (music director) at Leipzig, on his appointment in 1723, one Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach’s St. John Passion made its first appearance on Good Friday in 1724. Revised for three subsequent performances, a final version was never produced. The fourth version was sung in 1749. This unusual musicological history provoked the quirky subtitle given in the program notes here — the “Incomplete Complete!” The received version now performed is a hybrid, including material from all four versions. Sometimes seen as the lesser of Bach’s passions alongside the far longer setting of Matthew, many would now argue that its compactness and use of drama gives the St. John Passion the edge over all Bach’s other sacred music.

The passion in John’s Gospel is, of course, the most sophisticated of the four. It abounds in the use of literary irony, in the dialogue on kingship and in the recurring description of Jesus’ “lifting up,” which holds together his passion and exaltation/resurrection, This element, when added to its juxtaposition of the priestly and secular authority and Jesus’ consistent self-possession in his passion, makes for an intense degree of dramatic tension.

Bach exploits this tension to the full throughout, with his varied use of chorales, recitatives, solo voice arias, and choruses. The achievement is astonishing, seeing how much more of a challenge the composition of a full-scale passion would have been in comparison with the cantatas that were usually expected of him. The composer makes it clear that this was not to be an operatic piece but rather a devout meditation, aiming to inspire the congregation to a greater depth of reflection on this day, the day of all days.

Philippe Herreweghe’s recording with the Collegium Vocale Gent is a tour de force and reinforces his reputation as one of the great contemporary interpreters of the one who is seen by some as “the greatest composer of all time.” That argument, of course,  will recur often in this, Beethoven’s 250th year!

The opening chorus establishes a dramatic depth which is maintained throughout. But the contrast of this with the chorales’ lyrical phrasing and lightness of approach moves the listener progressively deeper into the mystery of John’s writing and its unique ability to chart the tensions of Christ’s trial and agonies. This is further established by the great rhythmic sensitivity established and developed as the drama unfolds. Any hint of operatic showmanship is avoided, but despite the intensity and comparative length of the passion narrative, both the intensity and lingering beauty never disappoint, nor allow the work to feel “slow” in a dramatic sense.

The entry of the great Latin hymn Gloria, laus et honor brings its own pathos and richness at that supreme Johannine moment, when Pilate declares: “What I have written, I have written.” The hymn’s response is “In meines Herzens Grunde, dein Nam und Kreuz Allein” — “in the inmost reaches of my heart, thy name and cross alone.”

Herreweghe’s rendering offers the listener a most subtle and moving way into the mystery of Good Friday. The tempo is brisk and strong, but never breathless; the diction is outstanding and the recording quality impeccable. Bonuses are the intriguing program notes, which abound in insight. Michael Maul begins: “The bass quavers sound like the merciless blows of a chisel on stone, the violins’ semiquavers interweave a pure infinite tapestry of sound….” His reflection on Robert Schumann’s appreciation of the work and his insights into Bach’s own engagement with it over four versions are fascinating.

Ultimately, however, it is the power of the text and music together which bespeak more of the theology and spiritual power of John’s dialogue and drama than might issue from countless more purely prosaic analyses: “Behold the Man!”

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Platten is honorary assistant bishop in the Dioceses of London, Newcastle, and Southwark.