Johannes-Passsion BWV 245
Conducted by Paul Dombrecht
Introducing Paul Dombrecht's St. John PassionPete Blue wrote (May 15, 2002):
It gives me great pleasure to bring to the List's attention my latest prized Bach recording: a live 1996 performance from Belgium of the St. John Passion (1739 version), with the Flemish HIP ensemble Il Fondamento conducted by its founder, Paul Dombecht (of Zelenka fame on the List), and with Ian Honeyman, an Englishman heretofore unknown to me, as the Evangelist.
When I asked the List for help in choosing the SJP Recording Of My Dreams (Msg # 5447), your recommendations were fruitful, but also frustrating, because the two I finally settled on -- the Gillesberger (attrib. Harnoncourt) with Kurt Equjiluz as the Evangelist, and the even more enticing Scherchen with John Van Kesteren -- are (sob) utterly unavailable.
I have, however, stumbled upon an SJP which, for now anyway, satisfies me more than any other: the Dombrecht. It is on the Vanguard Classics label (European, not American, Vanguard) and appears to be OOP, but can be special-ordered (which I did) from amazon.co.uk and was also recently listed on towerrecords.co.uk (GBP 11.98 for 2 CDs at Tower). For those more patient than I, Passacaille's website (www.passacaille.be) has announced a reissue of the Dombrecht on their label -- in 2004!
So you'll know where I'm coming from: my dream SJP must fulfill two requirements, which I almost never have found together. Requirement No. 1 is that the Evangelist be a really great storyteller. The spine of the Passion is the Passion story, and unless we listeners are glued to the narrative, on the edge of our seats, anxious to know what happens next, the resulting Passion is less a unified dramatic work and more just a succession of cantatas with gospel excerpts (still wonderful, of course).
Requirement No. 2 is the presence of what I call "the Oberammagau factor": an atmosphere in which the community of artists and audience virtually relives the events of the story as they unfold. Recorded examples of No. 2 are uncommon but not unheard-of; the deeply devotional Suzuki, its chorales rendered IMO with unmatched fervor, comes immediately to mind. But as to Requirement No. 1, a consistently gripping narration, the Suzuki's Gerd Türk, for example, while he has many affecting moments and his phrasing is always beautiful, comes through as sort of a wuss. As I listened I silently begged him, "Surprise me", but he never did. I hasten to add that in falling short in the drama department I think Gerd Turk has a lot of company among
otherwise superb SJP Evangelists.
On the other hand, the Dombrecht's Ian Honeyman, with a less beguiling voice than some other Evangelists, is totally riveting from first to last. Honeyman goes from thundering to whispering and back again in an instant. When he wails "und weinete bitterlich" it's spinetingling. To many listeners he'll seem a little hokey and over the top, but to my ears he is close to ideal.
As for the other participants, Dombrecht and Il Fondamento -- an orchestra of 22 and a choir of 17, if I've counted correctly -- perform with vigor and exceptional precision, expecially when you consider that the live-performance tape was probably minimally edited; the opening chorus in particular has great power and sweep. Countertenor Steve Dugardin is no Hertha Töpper or Christa Ludwig (these days who is?) but in collaboration with Dombrecht his "Es ist vollbracht!" is as wrenching as it should be. Werner Van Mechelen's huge and rather wobbly voice entirely suits the SJP Christ. Greta De Reyghere has a lovely silvery soprano and dead-on intonation. The tenor and bass soloists, Stuart Patterson and Dirk Snellings, are unexceptional but okay.
The ambiance captured by the engineers is electric. The presence of the audience is palpable, but except for a little beginning and ending applause (on separate tracks so it can be programmed out) they're dead silent. Were they all as stunned as I was?
I'll conclude this verbose post by stating that I expect the Dombrecht to remain my SJP of choice, at least until the Scherchen is resurrected.
Robert Sherman wrote (May 16, 2002):
[To Pete Blue] Pete, how would you compare this to Richter?
Pete Blue wrote (May 16, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Comparing Richter's SJP, which I recently reunited with after a long estrangement, with Dombrecht's is like apples and oranges. Both delicious in totally different ways.
The Richter uses modern instruments and a humongous choir of high quality. The Richter comes at you like a tidal wave, all of a piece, massively and continually beautiful. Ernst Haefliger's phrasing and tone are always ravishing. Hertha Toepper is like a force of nature in her two arias. Hermann Prey is a healthy young basso-cantante Jesus.
The Dombrecht uses a small choir and period instrument ensemble, a contrasting but no less effective sound image. Dombrecht's approach is the opposite of Richter's overarching one; Dombrecht's is, to use theatre jargon, in the moment, Stanislavkyan, Actor's Studio rather than Juilliard, spontaneopus rather than conceptual. Honeyman, Dombrecht's Evangelist, is much less the singer than Haefliger but much more the actor.
My personal taste leans (this month!) towards the Dombrecht approach. IMO, the Richter's virtue is ironically also its flaw: its integrity and overwhelming beauty are satisfying to a point, but it doesn't surprise, it doesn't make you catch your breath when you least expect it as does the Dombrecht. (In this respect the Suzuki IMO is closer to the Richter than to the Dombrecht, despite the Suzuki's HIP credentials.)
Pete Blue wrote (February 15, 2003):
On my most recent visit to www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com I noticed that newly listed are eleven hard-to-get releases by Paul Dombrecht, mostly with his Flemish HIP ensemble Il Fondamento, which IMO is one of the best of all such groups recording today.
In nothing which picky I have ever heard of theirs can I point to any ill-chosen tempo or imperfection of intonation. They have as much character and brio as the German and Italian groups like Stravagante and IGA, but with none of the occasional roughness and off-the-wall interpretive choices of those, and with a unique delicacy and lightness at fast tempi all their own. It's a shame that Il Fondamento is practically unknown in the U.S. (and Canada?), having never toured here to my knowledge.
Their only recorded Bach is the live SJP with Ian Honeyman as Evangelist praised by Thomas and myself. Berkshire is now offering it, for US$7.98. Of Dombrecht/Il Fondamento's other Berkshire listings my favorites are the Handel (also the Telemann) Water Music (peerless, IMO; listen to that F Major Bourree!) and their Zelenka, which has been mentioned favorably by List members.
One of their best CDs, IMO, but not offered by Berkshire, is on the Passacaille label: absolutely gorgeous choral pieces, unknown until recently uncovered by Belgian scholars, composed by Alphonse D'Eve and Pietro Torri. Sound samples were at one time on Amazon or Tower.
Jim Morrison wrote (February 15, 2003):
[To Pete Blue] Thanks Pete. I only one of their CDS, the Zelenka you mentioned, and it's a particular Zelenka favorite of mine. Looks like I'll be placing anorder with Berkshire soon.
Johannes-Passion BWV 245: Details
Recordings: Until 1960 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | Sung in English | Individual Movements
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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 - Brüggen | BWV 245 - Cleobury | BWV 245 Dombrecht | BWV 245 - Fasolis | BWV 245 - Gardiner | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger | BWV 245 Herreweghe | BWV 245 - Higginbottom | BWV 245 Jochum | BWV 245 Leusink | BWV 245 - McCreesh | BWV 245 - Neumann | BWV 245 - Parrott | BWV 245 - Richter | BWV 245 Schreier | BWV 245 Shaw | BWV 245 - Suzuki
Articles: Saint John Passion, BWV 245 (by Teri Noel Towe)
Paul Dombrecht: Short Biography | Il Fondamento | BWV 245 Dombrecht