Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bach: St. John Passion - CNCO, Collegium Novum, Higginbottom

Johann Sebastian Bach
St. John Passion
The Choir of New College Oxford, Collegium Novum, Edward Higginbottom
Naxos 8.557296.97

Gramophone Magazine: Editor's Choice - June 2003

A natural and unforced reading within a 'living' musico-liturgical context. When you hear the St. John F4uArn ominous first chorus of Bach's St John Passion sung and played like this, liturgical ritual and visceral human drama make for an unusually intense experi_ ence. The bass line pulsates, the boys articulate the words with supreme clarity and the steady speed provides the movement with just the right length - a consideration too often neglected.

Recorded in New College, Oxford, the resident choristers, choral scholars and lay clerks appear to be entirely at ease with the special juxtaposition of quicksilver action and warm reflection which Bach demands in his choruses and chorales. One can too easily overplay the importance of 'environment' at the expense of plain musical inspiration, but Edward Higginbottom delivers a palpable sense of narrative, unfussy, as if habit lies at the root of its being. This, I suppose, is what gives New College its most 'authentic' correlation with the church-university context of Leipzig in Bach's day: a practising foundation undertaking its duties within rich ecclesiastical and academic traditions.

Yet there is nothing 'academic' in the word's less complimentary meaning. Just hear the searing choral chromaticisms as Christ is brought before Caiaphas, the startlingly urgent declamations as the crowd bays for blood (`Wir haben em n Gesetz' — 'we have a law' — is spat out in petty vindictiveness) or the distraught tenderness of James Bowman in 'Es ist vollbracht'.

To reinforce in-house practices and a timeless ethos, Higginbottom has selected a varied group of soloists who, over the decades, have emerged from the ranks of the choir. The Evangelist is the established tenor James Gilchrist, whose alert and straightforward singing makes his performance utterly believable. Of the current generation of choristers, Joe Littlewood reminds us that English choirboys can sing German music beautifully and convey the emotional essence of the text with maturity and purpose. His `Ich folge' is a delight.

There is the odd strain in Matthew Beale's testing tenor arias but a pleasing timbre, as indeed there is in John Bernays' proud but unblustering Christus. The odd wrinkle in the production is almost a relief: this is music making asking for rather more than the kind of studio spit and polish which renders the whole rather less than the sum of the parts.

Higginbottom has nevertheless considered his options meticulously (such as a small wiry string group for Tilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen') and there is no single 'tableau' or vignette within whose effect on the overall dramatic climate has not been calculated. If there is a general tendency, it is to allow the music to speak in its own time within a relaxed beat. The rest is instinct, experience and letting what will be, be. In such light comes this refreshing and captivating new interpretation. Needless to say, exceptional value is an added bonus.

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Gramophone Magazine

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