These are good times for fans of J.S. Bach’s sacred music. The first Canadian recording of Bach’s St. John Passion, BWV 245, was released on the ATMA label in January. And this week, audiences in Calgary, Quebec City, Montreal and New York City can attend performances of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions as the pre-Easter concert season goes into full swing.
The Passion is the term used to describe the suffering of Jesus between the night of the Last Supper and his death on the cross. Many 18th-century composers set the story of the Passion to music, among them Heinrich Schütz, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel. But Bach composed the two best-known Passions, one based on the Gospel of John (the St. John Passion, BWV 245); the other on the Gospel of Matthew (the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244.)
ATMA’s first Canadian recording of Bach’s St. John Passion brings together some of Montreal’s best early music specialists, Les Voix Baroques and the Arion Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Alexander Weimann for a historically informed recording that imbues the work with immediacy — which is not to say it lacks grandeur when required.
Listen Listen to the dramatic opening chorus, Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm.
The vocal soloists, all but one of whom also add their voices to the choral movements, are excellent. Special mention goes to soprano Shannon Mercer, whose flute-accompanied aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten, glows from within. German tenor Jan Kobow finds every bit of lyricism in the Evangelist’s exposition. Countertenor Matthew White’s reedy tone melds beautifully with the oboes in the aria Von den Stricken meiner Sünden. And hats off to the three baritones whose vivid singing brings the drama into striking relief: Stephan MacLeod (Jesus), Joshua Hopkins (Peter) and Nathaniel Watson (Pontius Pilate.)
White, who is also artistic director of Les Voix Baroques, reflects on their approach to this work: “Many books have been written, and countless heated arguments have occurred, about the most effective way to perform Bach's Passions. Though I don't claim to own the perfect recipe, one thing is certain: embedding the soloists into the choir creates a completely different atmosphere.”
White says this means everyone on stage is completely involved at every step. “You develop a sort of communal interpretation of the work. This was a revelation for a lot of the singers involved and even though we had a great leader in Alex Weimann, I think we all had a sense of shared ownership and pride in the final product.”
The album is available on iTunes and in record stores across Canada.
Audiences in Quebec City, Montreal, New York City and Calgary take note of these upcoming performances of Bach's Passions:
Les Violons du Roy and la Chappelle de Québec present:
Bach: St. John Passion, Bernard Labadie, conductor
Tuesday, March 20 and Wednesday, March 21 at 8 p.m.
Salle Raoul-Jobin, Palais Montcalm (Quebec City)
Friday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m.
La maison symphonique (Montreal)
Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m.
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall (New York City)
The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus present:
Bach: St. Matthew Passion, Roberto Minczuk, conductor
Friday, March 23 and Saturday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Jack Singer Concert Hall, Epcor Centre (Calgary)
Matt Haimovitz plays Bach’s sixth cello suite
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens stages a Soirée Stravinsky
OMG! Bach is getting a Barmitzvah in Berlin and the locals are livid