Gramophone guest blog

Unmoved by Bach's St John Passion? Try listening to it in English...

David TempleTue 28th March 2017

David Temple introduces the first commercial recording in English since Britten's in 1971

My first St John Passion was in the Barbican in 2011 with Crouch End Festival Chorus. It was in German, and with modern instruments at A=440. Though I was pleased with the performance, I was struck by the lukewarm response from the audience. I decided to programme it once again in German, on this occasion with my Hertfordshire Chorus in St Albans Cathedral in 2015. Shortly before we began rehearsals for it, I attended a performance by the chamber choir Ishirini, whose conductor, Jeremy Rouse, had chosen to perform it in English. I listened, totally transfixed, and immediately made the decision to change my upcoming performance to English and also to use a period orchestra in Baroque pitch – A=415.

The performance in St Albans was musically just as good as the one in 2011 but the palpable difference was the reaction of the audience: people were visibly moved by hearing the unfolding events in their own language. It was at this point that a few friends suggested I record the work in English with Crouch End Festival Chorus and so Chandos Records was approached – and to my utter delight, they agreed to take on the recording.

I was aware that the catalogue of St John Passion recordings is well stocked and that almost all of these are in German and with small professional choirs, as has been the fashion for the past 40 years. The most recent recording in English was back in 1971 with Benjamin Britten conducting the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir. So I felt that there was total justification for embarking on a new one – especially given the superb translation by Neil Jenkins published in 2003 – with a hope that it would introduce this truly great work to new listeners throughout the English-speaking world.

I deliberately planned the recording sessions so that the dramatic recitatives (performed brilliantly by Evangelist Robert Murray) would lead into and out of each chorus, and the narrative would thus make you feel as if you were actually witnessing the crucifixion as it happened. Hearing the choir vent their collective spleen on ‘We have no King but Caesar!’ was truly chilling. The passage where the dying Jesus (Ashley Riches) entwines his mother with the disciple John is truly heart-rending. For the more reflective moments in this and other recordings, i.e. the arias, the German and the English versions battle it out for supremacy; however, when it comes to the depiction of the story, with all its utter brutality mixed with glorious tenderness, the English (assuming you are not a fluent German speaker, of course) wins hands down in my opinion. No programme notes or surtitles are needed (especially with the clarity of the words that we took care to ensure): this horrific event is transported directly from the singers to the audience.

The other aspect of the recording which is different from all recent versions is the size of the choir. We had exactly 100 singers for the sessions. Given that Haydn was inspired to write The Creation having heard a choir of thousands sing Handel’s Messiah, I have no issues with large choirs performing Baroque and Classical works as long as they are suitably prepared and also play to their strengths. One of my favourite movements on our new recording is the chorus ‘Let us not divide…’, which is where the Roman soldiers are tussling over Christ’s robe. Here the chorus achieves the agility, lightness and virtuosity of a top-class chamber choir – and paints a wonderfully bustling scene akin to Oxford Street on Boxing Day!

Whether or not the recording is to everyone’s taste, we are adding a new interpretation to those already in existence. Of course, I hope the recording is well received – but the most important aspiration I have is to introduce many new listeners to this pinnacle of artistic achievement.

This new recording of Bach's St John Passion sung in English is reviewed in the April issue of Gramophone and is released on March 31. For further information, please visit: chandos.net

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