J.S. Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, & John Eliot Gardiner

J.S. Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245

“The St John Passion begins with this sort of swirling undercurrent of turbulence in the orchestra,” Sir John Eliot Gardiner tells Apple Music, “and in the dissonance of the flutes and the oboes, the nailing of the flesh to the wooden cross. On top of that, you get this tremendous acclamation of Christ in Majesty from the chorus. It’s an extraordinary dramatization.” It’s hard to know what the congregation of Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche would have thought upon hearing the opening bars of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion. The year was 1724, and Good Friday would normally have been observed in relative silence, an austere atmosphere punctuated by a selection of Lutheran hymns. What greeted worshippers that day, however, was music of overwhelming descriptive and emotional power that would surely have shattered their perception of music itself. Bach wrote his first Passion within a year of arriving in Leipzig, where so many of his greatest cantatas would be performed in the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches. It tells the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion, setting biblical passages from the St. John Gospel (with verses from the St. Matthew) and Lutheran contemplation to two hours of miraculous recitatives, choruses, chorales, and arias. “The St John Passion is one of the most important examples of music drama since the time of Monteverdi,” explains Gardiner. “Even Bach’s contemporaries, people like Stölzel and Telemann, didn’t give the Passion story anything like the same dramatic force that Bach manages to find. More than any other composer I can think of, Bach has this extraordinary ability to comfort, and to console the bereaved. His music is to do with mortality and the whole issue of coming to terms with death. That seems, to me, absolutely pertinent and topical.” With so many astonishing moments in the St John, Gardiner alights at just a handful, directing the listener to the essence of Bach’s genius, including the second aria, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls.” “‘Ich folge’ is the only kind of happy music in the whole of the St John Passion,” he explains. “It’s a sort of secular love song, a love chase, as it were, of the follower following in Christ’s footsteps.” In contrast, continues Gardiner, one of the most extraordinary surges of musical energy happens in “Ach mein Sinn” at the end of Part I, in which the tenor, accompanied by full orchestra, sings of Peter’s remorse at denying Jesus’ friendship. “In Part II, the arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seele’ is the most wonderfully painted landscape of spring, of primroses coming out—symbols of the year’s turning, but also a contrast to the torture that Jesus is undergoing.” “Betrachte, meine Seele” lies at the heart of Jesus’ trial, for which Bach reserves his most dramatic and graphic music as Jesus is interrogated by Pilate and sacrificed at the demands of a baying mob (“Kreuzige, kreuzige!”). It’s the trial scene that makes Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre such a compelling venue for this, Gardiner’s third recording of the St John Passion. “The Sheldonian just has a quality which you won’t find in churches, not in this country, anyway, of a courtroom drama,” he says. “Its two jutting balconies, where I put the Evangelists on one side and Jesus on the other, lend themselves to the Roman trial, with Pontius Pilate looking down on the prisoner in the dock.” Bringing Bach’s drama to life are some of today’s finest young musicians, including the Evangelist, sung by tenor Nick Pritchard (“I had my eye on him for some time, and I think he did a brilliant job,” says Gardiner), and Jesus, performed by bass William Thomas, who, Gardiner adds, “brings something very noble and very human to the part.” And, of course, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, all of whom performed in a socially distanced formation during the recording at the height of the COVID pandemic. “I was very acutely aware of the technical difficulty of coordinating a group of singers and players who were separated and quite a long way away from me,” Gardiner admits. “We had to create that kind of glue, the kind of complicity that we take for granted when we’re performing in a normal setup in a church or concert hall. And that required enormous concentration. “And I think it came off,” he adds. “And I was tremendously chuffed and proud of everyone. The incredible force and beauty of Bach’s music creates an extraordinary effect, a huge impact, and it offered us a chance to aspire to something much bigger than us and beyond us—the divine.”

Johannes-Passion, BWV 245, Part I
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Johannes-Passion, BWV 245, Part II
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