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Saint John Passion, BWV 245

By Teri Noel Towe (1991)


This critical discography of the recordings of the Saint John Passion, was completed late in 1989. No effort has been done to update it. No new recordings have been added, but if you are interested in an updated, thorough, and accurate (as possible) discography of the recordings of the Saint John Passion, please look at: SJP BWV 245 Ė Recordings. The article itself was left "as is", to stand or fall, on its own, as a historical document that reflects the state of affairs as Teri Noel Towe found them, just before the volcanic explosion of new allegedly "authentic" recordings -- purportedly "HIP" and employing period instruments -- that have overtaken and engulfed the listener, novice or educated, like a nuée ardente. The knowledgeable and up-to-date reader will spot the occasional "inaccuracy" that will serve as a cogent reminder that this essay, like its fellows in this section of my home pages, is a fly in amber.

Please remember that the copyright in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press, and, should you choose to honor Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from it, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final version of this discography is to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the discography appears at this website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

Teri Noel Towe (December 2001)



Early Recordings
First Complete Recordings
Recordings by Thomaskanotors
Traditional and Early Period Instruments Recordings (1960ís & 1970ís)
Traditional Recordings (1980ís)
Recent Period Instruments Recordings
Alphabetical Discography



The history of the St. John Passion BWV 245 is more complex than that of Bach's other surviving setting of the Passion story, the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244. First performed in 1724, three years before the first version of the Matthew, this direct and deceptively "simple" oratorio was subjected to a revision the following year that resulted in the substitution of new choruses for the opening and concluding ones, and the insertion of three alternate arias in the body of the work. All of the music for this first revision survives.

In the early 1730s, Bach returned, in essence, to the 1724 sequence, but with a few modifications. In the intervening years, the "new" opening chorus, "O Mensch, bewein' dein SÜnde gross", became the concluding chorus of Part One of the St. Matthew Passion, and thus was no longer available for use in the St. John. Furthermore, ecclesiastical authorities in Leipzig had evidently objected to Bach's insertion of two intensely dramatic sequences from the Gospel according to St. Matthew into the St. John Passion, and he removed them. Bach provided no replacement for the first of these excised interpolations, the passage describing Peter's remorse at his denial of Christ; but for the second, the earthquake episode after the Crucifixion, he substituted an instrumental sinfonia that has not come down to us. The aria that he wrote to replace "Ach mein Sinn" in this third form of the St. John Passion also has not been preserved. Finally, this third version did not have the chorale that follows the concluding chorus in the first version.

In the very last years of his life, Bach returned to the St. John Passion and confirmed the sequence of the original version, restoring both the final chorale and the interpolations from the Gospel according to St. Matthew that he had omitted from the third version. On Good Friday, 1749, Bach gave a performance of the St. John Passion that turned out to be the last performance of a Passion setting that he himself directed, for the following year, he was too unwell to put one on, and he died on the 28th of July. This last performance was indeed a grand one; it called for a larger ensemble than he had used in previous productions, and it must have been a worthy valedictory to this important facet of Bach's musical life. This "final" version contains a puzzling doubling continuo part for "bassono grosso"; what kind of an instrument Bach intended this part to be played on is still a subject of controversy and uncertainty among Bach scholars. Of greater significance, however, at least to those who are interested in recordings of the St. John Passion, is Bach's reinstrumentation of the arioso "Betrachte meine Seel" and the following aria, "Erwäge". During the 25 years that had elapsed since the premiere performance, the lute, which Bach specifically calls for as a continuo instrument in the arioso, had become a rara avis indeed, and the two viole d'amore appear to have been unavailable, too. Accordingly, Bach rescored these numbers for two muted violins and harpsichord. One of the many ironies involving the St. John Passion on records is the infrequency with which one encounters the revised version of these numbers. Since the first complete recordings, the early version calling for the "obsolete" instruments has been the one preferred by all and sundry.

The St. John Passion was one of the first major compositions by Bach to be revived in the years following Mendelssohn's seminal performance of the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday, 1829. The first "modern" performance of the St. John Passion was given by the Singakademie in Berlin 1833; the first American performance took place in 1888, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, under the baton of Dr. J. Fred Wolle, who twelve years later inaugurated the annual Bethlehem Bach Festival with what appears to have been the first complete performance of the B Minor Mass BWV 232 anywhere.


Early Recordings

Of the three major choral works of Sebastian Bach, the St. John Passion was the last to be accorded a complete recording. During the 78 era, precious little from this magnificent setting of the Passion story was available to the record collector. At least in part, this sad state of affairs seems to have been a by-product of the common perception of the St. John Passion as "inferior" to the St. Matthew Passion in some intangible and indescribable way.

It is, therefore, something of an irony to discover that among the handful of excerpts from the St. John Passion that were available on 78s was a disc devoted to the first of the three alternate arias that Bach composed for the second, 1725, version of the work. Sung by the querulous Jacques Bastard, who is accompanied by the members of the original Ars Rediviva Ensemble, which made a number of important pioneer recordings of Baroque repertory, this performance of "Himmel, reise", BWV 245a, is, understandably, something of a collector's item, if only because of its novelty and scarcity [M-1]. This performance, however, is the only one on records in which the chorale cantus firmus is intoned correctly by a solo soprano, rather than the soprano section of the choir.

Little else was available to those interested in the St. John Passion. In the early 1930s, French Columbia published four 12" sides that contain abridged versions of the opening and concluding choruses, one "turba" chorus, and two chorales [M-2]. Performed in French by the 300 member Chorus and Orchestra of the Brussels Royal Conservatory under the direction of the Belgian conductor Désiré Defauw, later Frederick Stock's successor as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, these conservative but rather dimly recorded interpretations are of limited interest. A single record of four excerpts from the from the "Condemnation" section, followed by the concluding chorale, sung by the Choir of the Eglise St. Guillaume of Strasbourg, with orchestral and organ accompaniment, under the baton of Charles Munch's older brother Fritz appeared at about the same time [M-3]. Of greater interest today are two 78s of excerpts conducted by the Bach scholar Dr. Fritz Stein [M-4]. The concluding chorus, the concluding chorale, and one other chorale are performed with sensitivity and with understanding by a small chorus and orchestra led by a musician who was in the vanguard of the revival of interest in the stylistically correct performance of Baroque music.

Incredibly, there were only three 78 RPM recordings of the most famous number in the St. John Passion, the alto aria "Es ist vollbracht". Leopold Stokowski recorded his own orchestral arrangement with the Philadelphia Orchestra [M-5]. Though sung in French, the performance by Lina Falk, with the gamba obligato played by and organ accompaniment by Noëlie Pierront, remains, after over half a century, one of the more satisfying accounts of this aria [M-6]. The same may be said of Marian Anderson's heartrending reading in English, which was recorded in 1941, and was subsequently transferred to LP in the early 1950s [M-9].

Apart from "Es ist vollbracht" and "Himmel, reise", only two arias from the St. John Passion seem to have found their way to records during the 78 era. Both discs are justly sought after by vocal collectors. One is a poignant performance of "Ach mein Sinn" sung by Julius Patzak [M-7]; the other is a recording of "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" sung by Margherita Perras [M-8].


First Complete Recordings

The first "complete" recording of the St. John Passion [2] was not made until the late summer of 1950 (the bicentenary of the death of Sebastian Bach), 12 years after the first complete recording of the St. Matthew Passion and 30 years after the first recording of the B Minor Mass. Even then, the recording was not truly complete, because the conductor, Ferdinand Grossmann, cut the reprise of initial ritornello in the opening and the concluding choruses, both which are strict da capos. The recording has little to recommend it in any case. The instrumental intonation leaves much to be desired; the winds are especially painful to the ear. The chorus is not far enough forward within the ensemble. Apart from bass Walter Berry, then at the beginning of his long career, none of the soloists is worthy of special mention: Ferry Gruber, the Evangelist, is a bit querulous; the rest of the soloists are adequate.

As is the case with the St. Matthew Passion, the first complete recording was sung in English and was made in the USA [E-1]. An aggregation of New York's best free lance instrumentalists, a distinguished group of soloists, a superb professional chorus and a remarkable amateur one came together to record the St. John Passion in the fall of 1950 under the direction of Robert Shaw, than as now America's greatest choral conductor. Blanche Thebom is especially affecting in the alto solos. All of the soloists sing with sharp diction and a focussed tone. Apart from an excessively slow reading of "Ach mein Sinn", Shaw's is a finely paced recording, and the interpretation is taut and dramatic but devoid of emotional excess. It was and still is a particularly distinguished account, despite the translated text, which the conductor himself adapted from the King James version of the Gospel and the Henry S. Drinker translation of the poetry.

The abridged recording of the St. John Passion conducted by Gottfried Preinfalk [3] that appeared in 1952, on the other hand, is unabashed in its emotional expression. With exaggerated ritards, much rubato, and extremes of dynamics, the performance can accurately be described as a Mengelbergesque account. The disc is not a selection of excerpts. It is a true abridgement; only a shortened version of the "A" section of the opening chorus is presented, for instance. One rather regrets that Preinfalk was not given the chance to record the Passion in its entirety, because his reading has a conviction and spark that is lacking from most of the others made in the early 1950s, especially the Grossmann.


Recordings by Thomaskantors

Recorded in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in the summer of 1954, the legendary Günther Ramin account [4] is the first of a series that reflect the neo-Baroque tradition that is less the outgrowth of the early 19th century Classical tradition established by Mendelssohn than the "scholarly" refinement of that approach initiated by the Thomascantor Karl Straube (1873-1953), one of the pioneers of the return to musicologically accurate performances of early music. Straube's pupil and eventual successor as Thomascantor, Ramin leads the Thomanerchor, an ensemble of 80 boys' and mens' voices, and 38 members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance that, while it may have seemed revelatory 35 years ago, sounds dated today. Quite simply, the interpretation, unlike Ramin's severely abridged account of the St. Matthew Passion, lacks the charisma needed to make it timeless. Matters are not helped by the pounding realization of the figured bass on a clangorous metal-framed harpsichord. The quality of the solo singing, however, is very high, the contributions of Marga Höffgen and Ernst Haefliger being especially noteworthy. Though obviously large, the chorus does not sound as big as the annotations make it clear that it is.

The pseudonymous recording by the "Bach Society of Berlin and Cathedral Choir conducted by Hans Burckhardt" [5] also evidently dates from 1954; it appears to be a performance recorded off the air. There are mindless "cuts", often snippets of movements, that may indicate enforced tape or acetate changes. It is impossible at this late date to hazard a guess as to the true identities of the conductor and the performers, except to say that the Evangelist sounds like Helmut Krebs, whose interpretation of the tenor part, fortunately, was properly documented in a studio recording.

In the late 1950s, shortly before he left East Germany and settled in the West, Kurt Thomas, Ramin's successor as Thomascantor, recorded the St. John Passion, with a large orchestra and chorus [7]. Contemplative but not well focussed, respectful rather than reverent, the performance is not a particularly successful one, and matters are not helped by the rather muddy sound. Thomas's recording, however, is one of the tiny handful to adopt the late form of "Betrachte meine Seel" and "Erwäge". Of the soloists, only Sibylla Plate need be sout; her solid, clear voice sounds, paradoxically, almost boyish at times, and she sings the alto solos with affection and understanding.

Although it was not recorded until 1975, the Hans-Joachim Rotzsch account is best discussed here, because his is the third, and most recent, recording of the St. John Passion conducted by a Thomascantor [22]. It is also the most successful of the three, and, in its quiet way, one of the most satisfying recordings of the oratorio overall. Rotzsch, who was himself a fine tenor and who appears as a soloist in many of Ramin's recordings of Bach Cantatas, also uses a large chorus and orchestra. Peter Schreier here makes his recorded debut as the Evangelist and acquits himself nobly, bringing a special dignity and keenness to the narration of the story. Theo Adam's voice had grown a little woolly by the time he made this recording, and that makes him sound rather "old" as Jesus, but he sings the role with great understanding. Of the remaining soloists, including a radiant Arleen Augér at the dawn of her career, Heidi Reiss is the most notable. Her "Est ist vollbracht" is a particular joy.


Traditional and Early Period Instruments Recordings (1960ís & 1970ís)

In 1988, Peter Schreier made his own recording of the St. John Passion [39]; he directs the performance and sings the role of the Evangelist as well as the tenor arias. As seems to so often to be the case with those who sing Bach's Evangelist parts, Schreier is even better his second time around, and he may well be the pre-eminent interpreter of these rôles today. Robert Holl is an excellent, impassioned Jesus, but, while he interprets the bass arias sensitively, Olaf Bär's voice is marred by a tight, rather bleaty vibrato. The other soloists are more than adequate. A mixed choir of some 50 voices and modern instruments are used.

Schreier's interpretation is straight-forward in the main, but it is not without its eccentricities. The opening chorus, for instance, is marred by a curious stressing and lengthening of the strong beats that interferes with the relentless foreboding implicit in this highly charged music. On dubious musicological grounds, the running eighth-note bass line in "Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen" is given to a solo bassoon. Schreier's recording is, however, one of the three so far made -- and the only one on compact disc -- to include as an appendix the three alternate arias from the 1725 version; unfortunately the alternate opening and concluding choruses are omitted.

Had he not elected to emigrate from East Germany, Karl Richter probably would have succeeded his teacher Günther Ramin as Thomascantor, but, instead, he moved to Bavaria and founded the Munich Bach Choir which he built into what was, in the 1960s and 1970s at least, the most famous ensemble in the world specializing in the performance of Bach's sacred music. Though some of them are now 30 years old and older, many of Richter's recordings are still in the catalogue, and with good reason. His account of the St. John Passion [11], recorded in 1964, is taut, incisive, intense, and charismatic; stylistically, his dramatic, at times operatically paced reading is a curious but successful marriage of the neo-Baroque and the post-Romantic. The chorus of 90 and the rather large orchestra perform with precision and total commitment both to the music and to Richter's view of it. Ernst Haefliger shines once more in the tenor parts, singing with even greater beauty and profundity for Richter than he did for Ramin. Evelyn Lear's voice is perhaps too "dramatic" in character for this music; her diction is muddy, and the text, therefore, is often unintelligible. Hermann Prey is an effective, youthful Jesus.

Recorded at about the same time as Richter's, Fritz Werner's interpretation of the St. John Passion [8] is a contemplative one. He adopts a slow tactus throughout, which emphasizes his reverent view of the music. Helmut Krebs is a heavenly Evangelist; his clear and distinctive voice combines with an innate sensitivity for both music and text to produce one of the truly memorable accounts of the rôle. With like understanding and a clear, solid tone, Marga Höffgen excels in the alto solos, as she does for Ramin. As Jesus, Franz Kelch is empathetic, but his voice is covered, dry, and strained; his voice, alas, had deteriorated a great deal since he recorded the part so effectively for Ramin a decade earlier.

While not as inspired as Werner's, Karl Forster's reading [9], taped in 1961 in Berlin, is similar in tone; the distinguished German choral conductor is earnest if rarely inspiring. What makes his recording special, however, is the presence of the aptly named Fritz Wunderlich. The white heat and searing clarity of his voice and the keen sincerity of his interpretation make his Evangelist a particularly special one; one regrets that he was not assigned the tenor arias as well, for Josef Traxel's vocal production is tight and strained. Karl-Christian Kohn is equally disappointing in the bass arias and in the parts of Peter and Pilate; his is a big voice, but pressed at the top and marred by an unpleasant narrow vibrato. Since a radiant voiced Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings Jesus with dignity and understanding, one regrets Kohn's weaknesses all the more. Both Elisabeth Grümmer and Christa Ludwig, however, handle their assignments admirably in this oddly uneven recording.

The year before the Forster interpretation was taped, the first of the two English language St. John Passion recordings that have been made in England was released. oth of these performances feature the incomparable Peter Pears as the Evangelist. In the earlier of the two [E-2], an English text by Peter Pears and Andrew Raeburn that was based on the 1872 Troutbeck translation is used. The translation of the Gospel for the recitatives was Pears's primary responsibility, and it was his goal to make the words fit Bach's notes as much as possible, rather than the other way around. David Willcocks leads the Choir of King's College Cambridge and the Philomusica of London in the recording which was made in the brightly resonant and richly reverberant acoustics of the Tudor Chapel at King's College. A galaxy of the best oratorio singers then active in Britain was assembled for this recording (Robert Tear, then at the beginning of his career, sings the "bit" part of the Servant.), but the performance lacks spark; it is dutiful and lacking in intensity.

The Benjamin Britten recording [E-3], on the other hand, has all of the spark and intensity that the Willcocks account lacks. A composer-performer with an innate sense of drama, Britten, who prepared the performing edition himself, turns the St. John Passion into a sacred opera in the best sense of the term. There is no interpretive excess, however. All that is in evidence is Bri's exquisite sense of drama, tension, and pacing. Although Pears is not in quite as good voice as he was in the Willcocks recording a dozen years earlier, every one of the soloists is excellent. The chorus, however, is very large, and its diction, alas, is very muddy. The translation was prepared by Pears and Imogen Holst, but in this version, the words are viewed as more important than the note values in the Evangelist's recitatives; none of Bach's harmonic progressions are altered, however.

In 1968, as a part of its invaluable "Das Alte Werk" series, Telefunken released the first recording of the St. John Passion in which period instruments were employed [12]. It features the Vienna Choir Boys, the Chorus Viennensis, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Concentus Musicus Wien. More than twenty years after its initial release, this performance is still unsurpassed among the "authentic" accounts, and, overall, is certainly one of the handufl of recordings of the St. John Passion from among which those seriously interested in the work should pick. From the opening bar to the last, sinew, incisiveness, emotional commitment, profound understanding, interpretive commitment, and a total unity of desire to communicate the power of the score on every level is in evidence.

The soprano and alto solos are sung with surprising maturity and accuracy of intonation by anonymous members of the Vienna Choir Boys. One of Peter Schreier's few rivals for pre-eminence among present day Evangelists, Kurt Equiluz stresses the dramatic rather than the narrative aspects of the Gospel text; his is an intensely colorful reading that is matched perfectly by Max van Egmond's powerful, larger than life conception of Jesus.

When this remarkable recording of the St. John Passion was first published in 1968, Dr. Hans Gillesberger, then the director of the Vienna Choir Boys, was credited as the conductor. Surely the development of the interpretation was a communal effort in which both Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, who played keyboard continuo, were influential, but the many session photos included in the booklet that accompanied the original LP release make it quite clear that Dr. Gillesberger conducted. It is lamentable, therefore, that the direction of the performance is now ascribed to Harnoncourt, Gillesberger being credited, in essence, only with the preparation of the choir. One can understand Teldec's desire to capitalize on the value of Harnoncourt's much more widely known name, but this apparent distortion of the historical record nonetheless must be deplored.

The Gillesberger recording was the first of what are now a substantial number of period instrument recordings of the St. John Passion, and it struck all who heard it at the time of its release as a revelation; it was the musical equivalent of the Rembrandt "Night Watch" after all the accreted and stygian varnish had been removed. Still, almost inexplicably, it stood alone for ten years until the advent of the Schneidt recording in 1979. During that decade, however, several "modern instrument" recordings of the St. John Passion were released.

Recorded at about the same time as the Gillesberger but not published until the spring of 1971, the Eugene Ormandy account [13] is a Central European style performance, a late 19th century view of Bach and his sacred music. While there is nothing extreme about the interpretation, it is tinged liberally but tastefully with Romantic flourishes and exaggerations. Richard Lewis is a patrician and somewhat reserved Evangelist; George Shirley evinces strain in the tenor arias. Maureen Forrester's solid plummy voice is particularly compatible with Ormandy's interpretation, and she sings "Es ist vollbracht" with great affection and conviction. The two bass soloists are adequate, but neither is outstanding. The chorus is a large one. Modern instruments, of course, are used, but, while Ormandy chose to record the early version of "Betrachte, meine Seel", he nonetheless assigned the gamba obligato in "Es ist vollbracht" to the 'cello.

Eugen Jochum's 1967 SJP [14] also features a large chorus and orchestra, and, like Ormandy's, is liberally tinged with Romantic touches. The introspective but urgent opening chorus sets the tone for the whole performance. The mild tenderness at the upper end of his vocal range only heightens the keenness and dignity of Ernst Haefliger's interpretation of the Evangelist's recitatives. Agnes Giebel and Marga Höffgen are pure, solid, and reliable, as always, but Alexander Young's voice sounds a little worn. Walter Berry sounds stuffy as Jesus, but that's not entirely his fualt, Jochum is one of those conductors who slows down for the words of the Saviour.


Traditional Recordings (1980ís)

The Gerard Akkerhuis recording [21], released in the Netherlands in 1974, preserves a "stylistically correct" interpretation using modern instruments. There is little of the unusual or exciting about it, and one might quickly dismiss it as ordinary were it not for Marius van Altena, whose crisp, clear, warm voice is well suited to the Evangelist's rôle, even if he is somewhat tentative and tender towards the top. Akkerhuis, incidentally seems to anticipate Schreier's reading of the chorus "Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen"; he, too, apparently gives the continuo line to a solo bassoon.

Of much greater significance is the György Lehel performance, recorded in Hungary in 1976 [18]. A reflective but intensely colorful reading of the opening chorus sets the tone for an especially rewarding performance that is remarkable for its overall consistency of interpretation and execution. Lehel achieves an almost perfect blend of poignancy and reverence. Every soloist is first rate; all sing with crisp diction and clear tone, but it is Júlia Hamari who is particularly pleasing. The tawny, rich quality of her voice is entirely congruent with Lehel's passionate but dignified approach to the score.

Michel Corboz's 1977 recording [23] is also remarkable for its overall interpretive and technical consistency. He stresses and conveys the disquieting inevitability, the urgent sense of the predestined, that is so deeply imbedded in Bach's setting of the story. In addition to a first rate mixed chorus of about fifty voices and excellent instrumental support, Corboz is blessed by a stellar group of soloists for his superbly paced interpretation. Kurt Equiluz once again sings the rôle of the Evangelist with security and innate understanding of the drama. Birgit Finnilä imbues the alto arias with an extraordinary color; the burnished gold of her unique voice is oddly reminiscent of Rosa Ponselle.

When it appeared in 1979, Hanns-Martin Schneidt's period instrument "authentic' account of the St. John Passion [24] provided stiff competition for Gillesberger's. To begin wit, Schneidt included the five alternate numbers from the 1725 version of the oratorio to fill the sixth side of the three record set. Gillesberger offered no such bonus. Both performances featured a boy's choir and boy soloists (identified this time). The two youths sing well enough - Soprano Frank Sahesch-Pur is a bit wavery; alto Roman Hankeln is somewhat breathy. - but both are victims of that peculiar insecure intonation that seems endemic to male voices that have not "broken". Furthermore, the two boys are too busy working their way through the music to show much interpretive commitment. Aldo Baldin's magnificent voice and compelling interpretive sense combine to make the tenor solos especially moving and rewarding listening experiences.

In many ways, the Schneidt and the Gillesberger performances complement each other neatly. For example, Heiner Hopfner evinces strong emotional commitment as the Evangelist, but his is an intimate view of the rôle that emphasizes the narrative aspects more than the dramatic ones. In that sense Hopfner's Evangelist mirrors Equiluz's perfectly. Similarly, Nikolaus Hillebrand gives the part of Jesus an aura of calm resignation that contrasts sharply with Max van Egmond's heroic and dramatic conception of the part.

The singing of the 25 members of the Regensburger Domspatzen and the playing of the Collegium St. Emmeram are of a very high standard, but it has to be said that Josef Ulsamer's playing of the viola da gamba obbligato in "Es ist vollbracht" is appallingly stiff and perfunctory; when his interpretation compared to Harnoncourt's radiant reading in the Gillesberger set, the unpleasantness is emphsaized.

What makes the Schneidt set peculiarly valuable to all who are interested in the St. John Passion, however, are the five alternate numbers from the 1725 version. They have not otherwise been gathered together in one place in a period instrument performance, and the three arias have not been better interpreted elsewhere. Aldo Baldin's account of the sinuously onomatopoetic "Ach windet euch nicht so, verplagte Seele", BWV 245c, will give the listener goose bumps, and it has not been surpassed or equalled, even by Peter Schreier.

In addition to the Schreier set, a number of modern instrument recordings of the St. John Passion have appeared since the release of the Schneidt performance in 1979. One of these is perhaps the single most satisfactory account of the oratorio so far recorded [27].

Recorded in the Kirche St. Mariä Himmelfahrt in Cologne on February 3, 1980, this performance is a remarkable case of the whole being worth infinitely more than the sum of the parts. Peter Neumann leads the Kölner Kammerchor, a mixed choir of around thirty voices that he founded in 1970, and the Kölner Bach-Collegium, whose members play with verve and sensitivity, in an interpretation that is marked by thoughtful, crisp, yet natural articulation and that is suffused by a halo of compassion and empathy that can be found in no other recording of the St. John Passion. After a somewhat rocky start, Lutz-Michael Harder proves equal to the demands of not only the Evangelist's rôle, which he sings with great drama, but also the tenor arias. The other soloists all are restrained but effective, although soprano Ute Frühaber's voice is admittedly somewhat strained at the top and more than a wee bit dry. Neumann, incidentally, opts for the revised versions of "Betrachte meine Seel" and "Erwäge", with muted violins rather than viole d'amore.

On the other hand, the Karl-Friedrich Beringer account [25], which was recorded in April of 1979, has little besides Michel Brodard's quiet and sensitive Jesus (He sings Pilate and the bass arias in the Neumann performance.) to recommend it. Alejandro Ramirez, the Evangelist, has a hideous, thin voice, that is suffused by a tight, bleaty vibrato; the sound is so ugly that it is impossible to judge his interpretation fairly. The Amadeus Chor, some 60 or 70 strong, and the Amadeus Orchester do their best, but Beringer leads a performance that can best be described as listless.

The Theo Loosli recording [26] is nearly as bad. Apparently a "vanity" production of primarily local interest, it is bland, flabby, and uncharismatic. Adalbert Kraus proves to be a mediocre Evangelist; his voice is tender at the top, and his difficulties are exacerbated by the slow tactus that the conductor sets for the narrative. Loosli's brother, Arthur, is a tired sounding Jesus. Lutz-Michael Harder is satisfactory in the tenor arias, but he does not rise to the occasion as he did in the inspired Peter Neumann concert recording. And surely Arleen Augér must have wondered what she was doing caught up in this muddle. Matters are not helped by the engineering; the sound is dull, and the large mixed chorus sounds muffled. That the recording happens to include the five alternate numbers from the 1725 version is no bonus. The tenor aria "Ach windet euch nicht so" is painfully slow, and all of this music is performed to much greater effect by Schneidt and his colleagues.

Armin Brunner's recording [29] was conceived as the soundtrack for Werner Düggelin's visually free interpretation of the St. John Passion, filmed on location in Switzerland and Italy in 1984. Brunner had learned all the fashionable authentic performance practice tricks, and he applies them carefully throughout the recording, indulging, for instance, in the voguish device of stressing the strong beats in the opening chorus. Vandersteene is a fine Evangelist, the other soloists are more than adequate, and the chorus and orchestra are responsive to the conductor's direction, but Brunner's is not a memorable or inspiring interpretation of the St. John Passion. It is of value only to those who want the soundtrack to the movie.

A more intriguing curiosity, however, is a complete St. John Passion that was recorded in Leningrad in the late 1970s or early 1980s [28]. The only complete recording of a major Bach choral work so far made in the Soviet Union, this performance, conducted by Arkady Steinlucht, is sung and played in a style far more appropriate to Russian sacred music - or even the Kirov Opera. The tactus of the narrative is almost painfully slow, and the tenor (which one of the two sings the Evangelist is not specified in the literature that accompanies the discs) declaims the text in heavily accented German. Tempos throughout are slow, the playing and singing lush. The imaginative listener can easily close his eyes and pretend that he is attending a performance of the St. John Passion under the direction of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff.

A more recent complete SJP from Leningrad is similar in character, even though it is somewhat more stylish [32]. Under the direction of Eduard Serov, who, incidentally, opts for the revised versions of "Betrachte meine Seel" and "Erwäge", with muted violins rather than viole d'amore, this recording features the Soviet Union's most famous boy's choir. Unfortunately the Boys' Chorus of the Moscow Choral School is often shrill, hooty, and off pitch. The soloists are adequate and committed, but like their confrères in the Steinlucht recording, have little understanding of the tradition of which the Bach Paare a part.

Less extreme interpretatively, and therefore less interesting than either of the two Soviet sets, is an abridged recording of a complete performance of the St. John Passion that was given at the final concert of the 12th Meeting of the Yugoslav Music Academies and Faculties in Zagreb on May 15, 1985 [30]. Igor Gjadrov conducts an enormous chorus and an orchestra of "symphonic" proportions; Branko Robinsak is an acidulous Evangelist; and the seemingly mindless cuts made, evidently, to fit the performance onto two black discs result in the loss of a substantial number of arias and ariosos, including "Betrachte meine Seel", Erwäge", "Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen" and "Mein teurer Heiland".


Recent Period Instruments Recordings (from 1985)

At least four complete recordings of the St. John Passion in which period instruments are used have appeared since the celebration of the tercentenary of the birth of Sebastian Bach in 1985. John Eliot Gardiner's was the first to be released [33]. A mixed chorus of sixteen is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble slightly larger in size. A larger than usual complement of soloists is employed, and occasionally to the performance's detriment. For instance, Nancy Argenta, who sings "Zerfliesse, mein Herze", has both a warmer voice and a more profound interpretive sense than the white voiced, boyish sounding Ruth Holton whose "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" is cool to say the least. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a good if not memorable Evangelist. Michael Chance is the best of the soloists; his excellent interpretation of "Es ist vollbracht" is made even more remarkable by Gardiner's decision to use lute as a continuo instrument. The performance starts off coolly, but it gathers momentum as it goes along, gaining in commitment and focus as it proceeds.

Despite fine playing by the members of La Petite Bande, despite sensitive and sturdy singing by the sixteen members of the mixed voice choir assembled for the performance, and despite the valuable contributions of several excellent vocal soloists, Sigiswald Kuijken's recording of the St. John Passion [36] is quite ordinary. It is a bland and uninspiring interpretation that lacks fervor or compassion. Almost twenty years after he sang for Gillesberger in the first period instrument recording of the St. John Passion, Max van Egmond is still superb, René Jacobs sings "Es ist vollbracht" with profound beauty and sincerity, and Nico van der Meel has a gorgeous tenor voice, but Harry van der Kamp, alas, is a singularly dry voiced Jesus, and his vocal weakness is emphasized by his application of the essentially vibratoless technique that is correct for the authentic performance.

Although not without its brilliant moments, Philippe Herreweghe's reading [37] is also cool and strangely lacking in emotional commitment. He is the only conductor of a period instrument recording of the St. John Passion to opt for a female alto soloist. He feels that the alto numbers, "especially 'Es ist vollbracht', are infused with a greater degree of the sonorities of nocturnal affliction when sung by a boy alto or by a certain type of female alto, which are lower registers, than by a falsetto voice." Catherine Patriasz certainly makes an excellent case for the validity of his decision. Like Gardiner, by the way, Herreweghe also uses lute as a continuo instrument in "Es ist vollbracht". A very fast, almost flippant "Ach mein Sinn" is compensated for by a lovely, contemplative, and especially affecting "Betrachte meine Seel". Howard Crook makes a fine Evangelist, and, in fact, the soloists overall are of equally high quality.

There is nothing cool or detached, however, about Anthony Newman's interpretation of the St. John Passion [35]. In fact, his is without question the most extroverted and operatic account of the oratorio ever recorded. The tempos are brisk without ever sounding rushed. The thorough bass realizations are florid; there is even a harpsichord flourish linking the end of the "B" section to the reprise of the "A" section in the opening chorus! Some will dismiss this white hot, overtly dramatic performance of the St. John Passion as irreverent, if not downright disrespectful, but it is anything but that. Newman understands the link between the German Passion and Baroque opera and oratorio; he understands that the Bach Passions and the Handel oratorios are more closely related than many musicologists would like us to believe. In short, Anthony Newman gives us the St. John Passion as it might have sounded under Händel's direction had he included it in the repertory of one of his Lenten oratorio seasons at the Theater Royal in Covent Garden in the late 1740s.

For his recording, Newman assembled an excellent battery of soloists, all but one of whom (the Evangelist) sing in the choruses, as Bach's concertisten did. Jeffrey Dooley possesses a countertenor voice that is particularly warm and pure, and he knows how to use vibrato as an embellishment. William Sharp is one of the best interpreters of the rôle of Jesus in the USA, and Jeffrey Thomas is one of the best Evangelists. The clear voiced Julianne Baird gives an evocative performance of "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" that even includes a short interpolated cadenza! Newman's, by the way, is the only one of the period instrument recordings of the St. John Passion in which the later version of "Betrachte meine Seel" and "Erwäge", with muted violins and harpsichord is used.



Those who want an "authentic" recording of the St. John Passion in which period instruments are used should choose from the Anthony Newman [35], the Hans Gillesberger [12], and the Hanns-Martin Schneidt [24] recordings; while marginally less powerful than either the Gillesberger or the Newman, the Schneidt does include the bonus of excellent interpretations of the five alternate numbers from the 1725 version of the Passion.

Those who prefer a performance in which "modern" instruments are used should choose from the Peter Neumann [27], the Hans-Joachim Rotzsch [22], and the Karl Richter [11] versions. None of these, however, includes the alternate numbers from the 1725 version; the three arias are included as an appendix to the Peter Schreier recording [39];

Those who wish the St. John Passion sung in English are advised to track down a copy of either the Robert Shaw [E-1] or the Benjamin Britten recording [E-3].


Alphabetical Discography





Akkerhuis, Gerard



Anderson, Marian (alto), Robert Shaw or Charles O'Connell (conductor)



No. 58, sung in English

Bastard, Jacques (bass), Claude Crussard (conductor)

Early 1930ís


The 1st of the three alternate arias that Bach composed for the second, 1725, version of the work

Beringer, Karl-Friedrich



1st recording

Britten, Benjamin



Sung in English

Brunner, Armin



Burckhardt, Hans



Corboz, Michel



1st recording

Defauw, Désiré

Early 1930ís


Nos. 1, 7, 9, 44, 67

Falk, Lina (alto), Ruggero Gerlin (conductor)

Late 1930ís?


No. 58, sung in French

Forster, Karl



Gardiner, John Eliot



Gillesberger, Dr. Hans



1st recording by N. Harnoncourt

Gjadrov, Igor



Omits Nos. 9-11, 23-27, 31, 32, 40, 48, 60, 64, and 65

Grossmann, Ferdinand



Herreweghe, Philippe



1st recording

Jochum, Eugen



Kuijken, Sigiswald



Lehel, György



Loosli, Theo



Münch, Fritz

Early 1930ís


Nos. 41-44, 68

Neumann, Peter



1st recording

Newman, Anthony



Ormandy, Eugene

Mid 1960ís


Patzak, Julius (tenor), Alois Melichar (conductor)

Mid 1930ís?


No. 19

Perras, Margehrita (soprano)



No. 13

Preinfalk, Gottfried




Ramin, Günther



Richter, Karl



1st recordings

Rotzsch, Hans-Joachim



Schneidt, Hanns-Martin



Schreier, Peter



1st recording

Serov, Eduard

Mid 1980ís


Shaw, Robert



Sung in English

Stein, Prof. Fritz

Late 1930ís?


Nos. 52, 68

Steinlucht, Arkady

Late 1970ís / Early 1980ís


Stokowski, Leopold

Late 1930ís?


No. 58

Thomas, Kurt

Late 1950ís


Werner, Fritz



Willcocks, David



Sung in English


Copyright © Contributed by Teri Noel Towe (December 2001). Written by Teri Noel Towe, and originally printed in ĎChoral Music on Recordí, edited by Alan Blyth (Cambridge University Press, first published 1991). The copyrights in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press. Should you choose to honour Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from the article, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final versions of the discographies are to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the essays appear at this Website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

Johannes-Passion BWV 245: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Sung in English | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Systematic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-7 | Part 2: Mvts. 6-14 | Part 3: Mvts. 15-20 | Part 4: Mvts. 21-26 | Part 5: Mvts. 27-32 | Part 6: Mvts. 36-40 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 245 - F. Brüggen | BWV 245 - S. Cleobury | BWV 245 - P. Dombrecht | BWV 245 - D, Fasolis | BWV 245 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 245 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 245 - N. Harnoncourt-H. Gillesberger | BWV 245 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 245 - E. Higginbottom | BWV 245 - E. Jochum | BWV 245 - E. Kleiber | BWV 245 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 245 - H. Max | BWV 245 - P. McCreesh | BWV 245 - H. Münch | BWV 245 - P. Neumann | BWV 245 - A. Parrott | BWV 245 - P. Pickett | BWV 245 - K. Richter | BWV 245 - H. Rilling | BWV 245 - P. Schreier | BWV 245 - R. Shaw | BWV 245 - K. Slowik | BWV 245 - M. Suzuki | BWV 245 - J.v. Veldhoven
Saint John Passion, BWV 245 [T.N. Towe] | The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245 [M. Steinberg] | St. John Passion [A. Wong & N. Proctor] | The St. John Passion on stage [U. Golomb] | Literary Origins of Bachís St. John Passion: 1704-1717 [W. Hoffman] | Bachís Passion Pursuit [W. Hoffman]


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