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Johann Sebastian Bach

King's College Choir 18

St. John Passion

  • James Gilchrist - Evangelista
  • Neal Davies - Christus
  • Sophie Bevan - soprano arias & Ancilla
  • Iestyn Davies - alto arias
  • Ed Lyon - tenor arias
  • Roderick Williams - bass arias & Pilatus
  • Benedict Kearns - Petrus
  • Toby Ward - Servus
Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury
Recorded Live on March 21 & 22, 2016 at Easter at King's College Festival, Cambridge, UK
King's College Choir KGS0018 2SACDs 54:03 + 55:20
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In 1995 Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, recorded the St. John Passion, which would appear on both Regis Records and Brilliant Classics. The latter label issued both the 1724 and 1725 versions, accommodating the later rendition on DVD. It appears that Regis, on a pair of CDs, included just the 1724 rendition along with five numbers from the 1725 version.

This new recording features the 1724 version of Bach's masterpiece, in my opinion the better of the two versions. Bach enthusiasts should take note of this performance, as it is excellent in just about every way and presented in vivid, well-balanced sound. The singers are splendid, particularly James Gilchrist, Neal Davies and Sophie Bevan. Really, I'd be remiss not to include the entire cast of solo singers, since they are all quite outstanding. Further, I should single out countertenor Iestyn Davies who is very impressive in his smaller contribution here. Try his arias, #7 Von den Stricken… and #30 Es ist vollbracht to sample his subtle and versatile vocal skills.

If I may digress a moment… There are many British musicians with the last name of Davies (often pronounced "Davis" in the UK), and we have two on this recording of course, who are apparently not related; but, to bring in a somewhat personal note (and to mention a bit of a coincidence, at least to me), the father of Iestyn Davies is Ioan Davies, longtime cellist in the Fitzwilliam Quartet and a fine performer whom I saw in concert on at least two occasions at Bucknell University around thirty-five years ago. Small world. Now his son is a star.

Back to the issue at hand… I must also include in the plaudits the utterly splendid King's College Choir. They are consistently compelling throughout: to note just two examples of their fine singing, try #23 Die Jüden aber schrieen and #27 Die Kriegsknechte aber…, where the listener is likely to be astounded by their clear delineation and spirited delivery of Bach's challenging contrapuntal writing.

But of course a good performance of this work is not all about the singing: the orchestra and conductor have something to do with it. More than just something: Stephen Cleobury (pronounced Cleebury, or as many English would say, Cleebree) draws utterly splendid playing from the Academy of Ancient Music players, while he himself shapes the music into a thing a great beauty and passion, in the end offering a truly moving account of this great work. His tempo choices are judicious and always workable in his scheme, and his grasp of Bach's sacred music idiom is masterful. As suggested above, the sound reproduction is excellent. Insightful copious album notes are given and full texts are provided. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2017, Robert Cummings

Trumpet