Recording of Easter Week: René Jacobs, RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, soloistsBach: St John Passion

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Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, René Jacobs
Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 (1739 version)

The only thing wrong with this release from Harmonia Mundi is that, even though this is a Passion piece, the CDs won’t actually be available until Friday, April 1, a full week after the Easter weekend.

Jacobs previously led the same ensembles and soloists Werner Güra, Sunhae Im, and Johannes Weisser in a recording of the St Matthew Passion, and that set is superb, the finest recorded version of the work and one of the finest recordings of a Bach choral work there is. This new St John Passion is its equal, made superlative by the same elements. I don’t know how he does it, probably some combination of technique and coaching, but Jacobs’ recordings (prominently his series of Mozart operas), are imbued with an extraordinary feeling of drama. From the first bars of the opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher,” there is a mix of plangent sensations: a barely concealed turmoil, an implacable pace that is in no hurry yet full of urgency, and the purely beautiful sounds of the orchestra and chorus.

The recitatives press this further, with biting, almost improvisatory accompaniment of the soloists. Güra’s creamy tenor is full of expression in his role as the narrating Evangelist. Countertenor Benno Schachtner joins as one of the soloists, and everyone is strong. This recording is not just unbelievably well-made, but unbelievably vivid. Jacobs blows past the objective view of Bach as contrapuntalist, formalist, and melodist, and makes the music full of human passions that speak to contemporary listeners. The epitome of what recording classical music should be all about.

(Owners of the CDs will be able to download additional audio: the 1725 revisions of the original score)

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