Monday, March 26, 2012

Ich folge dir gleichfalls: Johannespassion at Carnegie Hall

I find Bach's Johannespassion irresistible under all circumstances; as well performed as it was by Les Violons du Roy, La Chapelle de Quebec, and an extraordinary group of soloists, I found it transporting. Bernard Labadie led the combined forces with energized precision, drawing out performances which were both subtle and--giving the word its full weight--passionate. Having a chamber orchestra allowed the textures of Bach's writing to emerge with exquisite clarity. Tempi were relatively fleet, but not to the detriment of emotional intensity and nuance. This comes close to gushing, I realize, Gentle Readers... but it's Bach, and it was brilliantly done. I was astonished that (especially on a raw and rainy Sunday afternoon in Lent) it wasn't better sold, but many of those who were there were standing during the final applause. Here Bernard Labadie talks about the rhetoric of Bach's "musical sermons":

The experience of the vocal and instrumental ensembles in working together under Labadie, and the enthusiasm all parties involved seemed to share in doing so, contributed to a strong sense of the piece's overall shape, unifying the richly detailed movements. The opening of "Herr, unser Herrscher" was given more dynamic ebb and flow than sometimes, and it gave me chills. The musical form and textual richness of the choral work were both beautifully displayed. The soloists in this admirably integrated performance contributed similarly thoughtful work. Hanno Müller-Brachmann brought a dark bass-baritone of impressive sonority (and, in "Mein teurer Heiland," impressive agility) to the roles of Petrus/Pilatus. Nicholas Phan was a luxury as the tenor soloist, with exquisite sweetness in "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken." Countertenor Damien Guillon showed sensitive phrasing throughout; I found his voice slightly light for "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden," but his elegant, silvery tone was an interesting fit for the intensity of "Es ist vollbracht." The power of Karina Gauvin's voice live was a stunning discovery. She was equally impressive in "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" and the anguished "Zerfließe, mein Herze," combining purity of tone with impressive richness and power.  Another welcome discovery was the warm, expressive bass-baritone of Neal Davies, who brought beauty of tone and depth of feeling to the part of Jesus. The role of the Evangelist is often sung with declamatory solemnity, partaking in a tradition of remote gravity deemed suitable for sacred text. Ian Bostridge, on the other hand, sang it with an edgy, anguished immediacy. The narrative of the Johannespassion is, after all, one of frequently shocking brutality, and it was this on which Bostridge focused, with fearless use of dynamic effect, and the vivid word-painting at which he excels. A hushed account of the chorale "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein" brought a powerfully involving performance to a moving close.


  1. How did this miss our little town? I am jealous. Sounds amazing, and what a slate of soloists.

    And Bach as the Fifth Evangelist, what a perfect notion!

    What are everybody's favourite Passion recordings? I don't know that rep too well so any guidance welcome. There are many many many many recordings of the Mass in B and of the Matthew and John.

  2. That does sound like quite the dream performance. Were I presently able to road trip, they'd have had me just at Gauvin.

    @DtO, fwiw, my Matthew vote's with Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi.

  3. (writing down...)

  4. @DTO Somewhat to my surprise, it looks as though this was a one-off, although Les Violons have been touring Canada with other programs in recent months.

    @Stray I hope that impedimenta to road-tripping are not of too serious a nature.

    Much as I love all the works you mention, DTO, I'm not terribly well-versed in the many (4x) recordings of them. I'd second Stray re: Herreweghe's Matthew. I can't quite decide whether I prefer Herreweghe or Harnoncourt for the Johannespassion. As for the Mass in B Minor, I grew up on the Marriner recording from the 70s, which is grandiose and symphonic, but I'm sentimentally attached to the splendor of its "Sanctus" and "Resurrexit." And it has Janet Baker. Not sure what a more recent recording "of choice" would be.

  5. I have the same bias for that Marriner recording, and for the same reason :-) But Arkiv likes Herreweghe again for this one, though I should point out that both this and his St Matthew have Andreas Scholl. If one wishes to support the Mezzo side, here's Arkiv's drilldown by performer/ensemble of the 103 (!) recordings they're currently listing:

  6. I knew I asked the right people. (I'll see if I can nudge TD in this direction, too.)

  7. gosh, i looove your description here. having just finished listening to 2 live Matthew myself over past 2 wks. what a line up it is. If i'm correct, Karina Gauvin is coming here to Boston to sing with the H&H... there's one broadcast of Damien Guillon online singing Matthew that i also really like.
    DTO: i can only speak of St Matthew, but yes, that recording above mentioned with Herreweghe & Andreas Scholl is great. I also really love the dvd version of Ton Koopman which i often link to, in particular the soprano on that recording.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Thadieu, and thanks for the recommendations and link, as well!

  8. just to mention this whole performance is available here (wgbh boston radio) for re-listening. (-thadieu)

  9. I am parking there as I write...


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