Bach, J.S.: St. John Passion
Audio CD | Import, Hybrid SACD
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Bach revised his Johannes-Passion several times over a period of 26 years, from 1724 until his death. Following acclaimed live performances in Paris and Berlin, the great Belgian maestro Rene Jacobs conducts the RIAS Kammerchor & Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin in a definitive performance of this choral masterpiece. The familiar 1739 version of the score is heard on the multi-channel SACDs in the package, which also includes a 'making of' DVD. The 1725 version is also included with the set as a bonus hi-res download.
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Jacobs' closest competition here is, no doubt, John Eliot Gardiner's 1986 reading with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for DG Archive (most recently available in a 22-disc box set: Bach Sacred Masterpieces (477 8735 (2010)). Both versions feature excellent soloists and wonderful singing, but I would have to give the laurel to Jacobs due in no small part to the stunning sound of the RIAS Chamber Choir. Simply glorious! (Also from 2010, a 10-disc box set from Sony features Helmuth Rillings' 1984 Hanssler Classics recording of the St. John Passion, but I came away deeply disappointed and even somewhat disillusioned by a performance that seems ponderous and heavy-handed, notwithstanding the presence of such notable soloists as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schrier, Arlene Auger and Julia Hamari (Sony (Masters Series) 88697687172 (2010)). After hearing the Jacobs version, I will probably never listen to the Rilling again.
Harmonia-Mundi's elegant packaging is, in itself, a delight to the senses. The substantial box includes a documentary DVD in addition to a glossy 107-page booklet. The booklet is nested atop a sort of 'trap door' under which the two SACDs are housed in discretely 'built-in' media trays. It's a clever and very elegant solution to a problem that has too often vexed manufacturers and collectors over the decades.
René Jacobs' 'St. John Passion' is recommended without reservation.