on March 11, 2001
I resisted buying and then listening to this version of one of my favorite pieces of choral music. Why? Firstly, I already own 2 other fine versions and I thought that a translation into English from German would distort what Bach had wanted. I was wrong: if anything, the English language helped me get "into" the text more...and understand, perhaps, a bit more of what Bach wanted us to feel while listening. I also do not usually like the sound of a boychoir. Bach had written the work for boychoir, but most recordings (and live performances) use an adult female choir. In this recording, conductor Benjamin Britten chose to use the Wandsworth School Boys' Choir and they are exemplary: their voices never get into that whiny trebel we are used to hearing and their enunciation of the English language is beyond reproach. All of the soloists employed are stars in their own right and many of them had worked together with and for Britten before this recording. Peter Pears, of course, was Britten's partner/muse/lover and he is superb as "Evangelist." If you have ever heard Pears sing, you know that his quality is one that cannot be compared with anyone else's. He is a singular artist. Britten has melded this entire, difficult, gorgeous work of Bach's into a very moving experience. The sound on this double CD set, recorded almost 30 years ago, is bright and full and rich. Do yourself a favor and buy this sublime music in this wonderful performance. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
on August 17, 2000
Ideally Bach's wonderful St.John Passion should be heard in the original German in order to fully appreciate the ideal marriage of text and music which makes Bach such a paragon of excellence amongst composers.There are some excellent versions available,and if I could gently push you in the direction of say Gardiner or Suzuki,then I would be satisfied that I've accomplished my good deed for the day.
However,sometimes it's nice to skip the language barrier and indulge yourself in a direct channel of communication via your own mother tongue.To that end,this 1971 performance under the sure-footed guidance of the esteemed composer Benjamin Britten is the best possible way to approach the marvels of the St.John without wrestling with translations as you go.
The recording is for the most part excellent,and is ideally full-bodied and intimate.There are a few thumps and bumps in the long opening chorale,"Sire,Lord and Master",but I don't feel this is too much of a distraction because of the panoply of beauty that awaits afterwards.
The all-important linking role of the Evangelist is given to Peter Pears,and no more sensitive interpreter of that crucial role will you find on record,I feel.He really does convey every emotional nuance of his recitatives quite brilliantly,and if you want a good example of his superb word-painting,just listen to the way he wrings all the heart-breaking tragedy of Peter's denial of Jesus out of just two words,"...wept bitterly",in No.18.Quite marvellous!
The choral element is given to the amazingly assured Wandsworth School Boy's choir under the direction of Russell Burgess,and it's hard to believe that they are (or were rather)just children.Many adult choirs would be hard-pressed to match their incredibly sensitive awareness of the emotion implicit in their chorales.Whatever these boys behaviour was like before or after this performance they were surely Angels on that day of the recording.From the lovely,"O generous love",No.7,to the famous and utterly sublime "Farewell,O weary broken body", their combined performance is a feast for the ears and balm for the heart.
The soloists I cannot praise highly enough.Perfectly matched as a quartet,and individually they are absolutely astonishing in their virtuosity.Perhaps the biggest bouquet should go to the soprano Heather Harper who is quite outstanding in,"I'll follow thee also", and "With torrents of weeping...".Quite honestly it's worth buying the disc for her performance of these two arias alone!
Yet who would miss hearing the lovely contralto Alfreda Hodgson in her beautiful rendition of "To release me from this prison".Extraordinarily moving,and another gem amongst all the other treasures on this disc.
The tenor Robert Tear needs no qualification from this humble reviewer.Everything he has done in his long career has been executed with consummate mastery of his craft,and his work on this particular recording is no exception.He is quite wonderful in conveying the bitter agony of the aftermath of Peter's denial in his aria,"Ah! take flight",and we REALLY "climb the grey hills in fearful desperation" with him,as we experience at first hand the desperate enormity of what the apostle has just done.
The Bass John Shirley-Quirk is a name known and loved by those who adore choral music,and he is the final member in this "dream-team" of soloists.In the St.John passion the bass arias are suffused with music of quite magical loveliness,and thank goodness they are in such a safe pair of hands here.One of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous moments in the entire work is the introduction to,"Look yonder,O my soul".My respect for the English Chamber Orchestra is boundless after the way they so tenderly pave the way for J S-Q's vocal entry here.
To conclude then:you are going to have to make room for two St.John Passion's in your collection.First and foremost you must go to the German motherlode to experience this masterpiece as the composer originally intended.But for a performance that will really hit you where you live,and open a direct line into the heart and soul of a wonder upon the Earth you simply HAVE to buy this lovely,lovely record.
on October 30, 2008
I usually resist Bach sacred music in English; the Passions, in particular, can sound uncomfortably like Monty Python's "Life of Brian" when rendered in oh-so-(in)correct BBC English. Moreover, Bach was alert to the distinctive timbres and rhythms of his native tongue (and in particular of Luther's Bible translation), and for this reason it is just as important to hear his Passions in the original German as it is to hear Janacek's operas in their original Czech.
On the other hand, a really good vernacular rendition by a musically sensitive translator can go a great distance toward capturing the distinctive inflections of the original text in the new language--and that is what Peter Pears and Imogen Holst have accomplished for Britten's famous rendition of Bach's *St John Passion.* Of course, even the most idiomatic of translations will remain ineffective in an earthbound performance--but that is certainly not the case here; for Britten was one of those multitalented composers who was also a gifted conductor. Indeed, few conductors--traditionally-minded or given to period manners--have penetrated so deeply into the core of Bach's terrifying but exultant vision of Christ crucified than Britten. Britten clearly grasps St. John's unique interpretation of the passion as simultaneously a humiliation and an exaltation: "When I am lifted up I shall draw all persons to myself."
Everyone--soloists, choir and EC0--respond with rapture to Britten's direction. Pears once again proves that he was one of the great exponents of the role of Evangelist. Howell portrays Jesus with authority, dignity and grace. The other soloists give of their best in the arias--particularly Hodgson. Two blemishes keep this memorable recording from being an unqualified masterpiece: the all-male choir, when in full spate, sing with glorious tone but mushy diction; and the engineers have given us a sonic perspective that is often hazy and sometimes distorted at higher dynamic levels.
But whatever the flaws, this English-language St. John must be counted as one of the great Bach recordings of all time. Buy it and cherish it.
on August 15, 2000
Conductor-Composer Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst took 15 years to mold this Bach Passion into a piece of reverence in Baroque music with an accurate and sublime English text. Britten as the conductor in this 1971 recording summons the brilliance of his cast, the Wandsworth Boy Choir, and the English Chamber Orchestra. This English version without a doubt rivals any of the German versions recorded with its regard for the technicality and grandeur of St. John's Passion.
on November 9, 2013
While the St. John Passion is a powerful work that glorifies God; it also is a deep expression of humanity.
From the first few seconds of the choral introduction ("Sire, Lord and Master"), one is immediately drawn into the infernal drama of man's struggle to reconcile himself with God. The drama continues in such sections as "Consider His Body, Bruised and Broken" (Tenor Aria), "Haste Forlorn and Weary" (Bass aria) and the choral dirge ""Farewell, O Weary, Broken Body".
Even so, the most profound moments are reserved for the female soloists as in the lovely and pleading arias, where both sorrow and hope are at once expressed :"Release Me From The Prison of My Transgression", "The End is Nigh", and "With Torrents of Weeping".
Also, there is the peace of God expressed in the pastoral and meditative "I'll Follow Thee Also" and "Look Yonder O My Soul".
Finally, the passion leads one to the promise of eternal life in the closing choral, "Lord Jesus, We Come To Die".
This is music from a master; the greatest composer of all time; who spent his life devoted to reflecting the glory of God through his craft and creativity; and the art has transcended all time and space.
As for the performance; unless you speak German, I would highly recommend that this is the ONLY St. John Passion that you should buy, at least until you get to know it; as this version is an English translation from the original German. Along this line, it seems to make more sense to sit back and absorb both word and music without having to plow through the translation.
The conductor, Sir Benjamin Britten seems to have had excellent insight to this music. Indeed, as Britten was a composer himself (one of the greatest of the 20th century) he seems to have had a special feeling for church music and composed several of his own pieces based upon religious texts or modeled along the lines of a religious liturgy.
on September 16, 2001
I second everything said about this by the reviews above! This is a warm recording sung very well, it'sd a real treat this one. Pitty Britten didn't do the St Matthew Passion. This is a super buy
This recording was highly praised when it first appeared, but it hasn't worn too well. It all sounds a bit staid, and the sound is thick. The chorus is warm, but their sound too is heavy, and the chorales are sluggish. The soloists are fine; Gwynne Howell is a big-voiced Jesus, and Heather Harper, a great singer, is secure, although she sings her big aria rather straight -- is it possible that these singers might have been more familiar expressively with a German text? The major drawback, though, is Pears's Evangelist. He's sweet and expressive, but the voice is very uneven, and the sustained notes wobble distinctly. Compared with Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Gardiner's set (or even Haefliger, on the old Richter set), Pears does not seem particularly effective. The Chorus and the Evangelist are the heart of the St. John Passion, and it's the limitations with both that make this set perhaps less than it could have been. Britten's conducting -- in the days before the period instrument movement really took off -- is certainly efficient, but it doesn't seem all that interesting to me. I have to admit, though, that I don't much like another much-praised set: the Klemperer St. Matthew.
Bach's Passions haven't made their way in English translations for the same reason that Messiah hasn't made its way in German: the text is inextricably tied to the original language. But if that sense of rightness isn't important to you, I agree with the other reviewers that Britten's Englished Bach is deeply felt and absorbing. Peter Pears couldn't be bettered as a dramatic Evangelist (although by 1971 his voice couldn't be called fresh).
The other soloists are also fine, but I'm not totally convinced by the large chorus that uses boys instead of women. Thier piping timbre isn't easy to get used to (unless you already love it -- I don't). But the bigger problem is that you can't hear the words very well, due to the backward placement of the chorus. If you're going to English the St. John Passion, shouldn't prime attention be paid to intelligibility?
on August 29, 2006
I must disagree with my fellow reviewers. Although I find Britten's general direction quite excellent, there are a few recording issues that interfere with the music. At points, the balance and the dynamics are erratic, which may simply be the fault of the technical engineers rather than the performers. Although the solo sections can be sublime, the choral sections suffer sloppy cutoffs and often incomprehensible diction.
on January 22, 2016
Beautiful performance (in English!!)