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These are excellent Passions, three of them recorded in live performances, all performed with period instruments and sung in original languages with integrity, commitment and obvious empathy with both music and context. Alessandro Scarlatti’s St John Passion was the first Passion setting in 17th-century Italy. Set in Latin, the Evangelist’s recitative is extremely varied in style, and the utterances of Jesus are surrounded by a halo of strings (did Bach know it?). The recitative accompaniment is extremely rich and imaginative, containing theorbo, archlute, triple harp, organ and harpsichord, all used in various combinations to dramatise the characters and colour the events. In this recording, scenes from the Passion are interspersed with polyphonic settings from Scarlatti’s Responsories for Holy Week. This is a very unusual work, well worth exploring.

The three recordings of Bach’s two extant Passions all project the text and drama vividly, justifying Martin Luther’s objective that music should make the text come alive. All three succeed, using scholarly editions, research, and instrumental and vocal resources appropriate to the period. The King’s recording, of course, has boys and young men, the nearest to Bach’s own choir, whereas Apollo’s Fire and the Monteverdi Choir have more mature voices including excellent female sopranos, the latter with the arias and the briefer solo parts (Pilate, Peter, maids, false witnesses, etc.) taken by 15 members of the choir.

Only Part 1 of the Apollo’s Fire St John Passion was sent for review, but there is no doubt that the interpretation is dramatic and sensitive. In places, sheer vitality is the cause of tempi which verge on the racy side, although the chorales are beautifully sensitive and flexible. The combination of James Gilchrist and Neil Davies as Evangelist and Jesus in the King’s recording is ideal. Gilchrist is also the Monteverdi Choir’s Evangelist, combining a beautiful voice with flexibility of pace according to dramatic context that appears natural and convincing. Such excellent live recordings do not come from experiments. The Apollo’s Fire recording concluded a series of seven perfor- mances in the USA. The King’s recording is the result of frequent performances in Passiontide, and the Monteverdi Choir recording concluded a series of 16 concerts throughout Europe in which the choir sang from memory throughout – initiated to further increase communication between singers and audience. Recording balances are fine throughout; even in King’s Chapel the engineers have managed to combine detail with resonance – a demanding challenge.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica


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