Bach: St John Passion (CD Review - Gramophone Magazine, 2013)

Stephen Layton’s outstanding new St John is about as state-of-the-art a Bach Passion recording as you’ll hear. For all its referencing various traditions, the overall signposting is pitched in the ‘middle of the road’ (and I mean that simply as one likely to satisfy as broad church as any available recording) and yet it appears remarkably fresh-sounding. Take as read the urgency, clarity, balance and declamatory unanimity of the chorus; Lindsay Kemp described the equivalent in Butt’s version where the effect of ‘a [single] voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality’. Layton’s reality is about cultivating the focus of each sentiment with supreme corporate executancy.

Where Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist offers us intense reportage and touchingly personal asides, Ian Bostridge is the master story-teller who surveys all about him, impeccably delivering every nuance of every word. Some may find it too consciously etched, yet in the context of Layton’s carefully weighted reading it is both deeply subtle and consistently finessed.

Alongside the top-class and pliable choral singing of Polyphony comes the roll call of exceptional soloists – Nicholas Mulroy among them. Indeed, his ‘Ach mein Sinn’ conveys as rarely before the blend of inner mournfulness and savage panic which Bach inspires with this terse chaconne-inspired movement. More worldly still is Carolyn Sampson’s delectable ‘Ich folge’, where seasoned discipleship rather than bright-eyed innocence prevails.

The noble Christ of Neal Davies and the deeply felt singing of Roderick Williams complement the kaleidoscope of vocal expression here with their capacity for reflective commentary (‘Mein teurer’ is über-elegant), as does Iesytn Davies in a treasurable ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Such is Layton’s overall grip and understanding of the generic dramatic properties of the St John – especially in controlling tension and release – that we have here a perfect balance for the greater spontaneity of John Butt’s touchingly inhabited and personal journey

Reviewed by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood 
Gramophone Magazine

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