Peter Seymour established the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists as long ago as 1973. The ensemble has become a strong presence in the performance of baroque music following the performance practices of the period. For this recording of the St John Passion Seymour directs a choir of 5/5/4/6 and all the arias, with the exception of those for bass, are sung by members of the choir. The small band comprises three violins, one each of viola, cello, violone and viol, pairs of flutes and oboes plus bassoon, organ and harpsichord.
Peter Seymour has a reputation as an expert on baroque performance practice and generally it seems to me that this account of the St John Passion is stylish and well-considered. However, I suppose I should say straightaway that I have one major issue with this performance. Despite Prof. Seymour’s eminence in his field I simply can’t understand, still less get comfortable with, his treatment of the chorales. The majority of these are taken too fast in my view – several of them are much too fast – and while pacing these movements swiftly may impel the overall drama on more readily, it seems to me that the contemplative element is sacrificed. Indeed, on a couple of occasions the pacing seems simply perverse. ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ (CD 1, track 11) is one such case. Perhaps Seymour is influenced by the fact that here the choir is commenting on the striking of Christ at the High Priest’s residence. Surely, however, the chorale is a reflection on that act rather than an extension of the narrative? I was even more dismayed by his way with the chorale in Part II ‘In meines Herzens Grunde’ (CD 2, track 12). The speed here is positively jaunty and, in my opinion, completely at odds with the sentiment of the words; indeed, the speed trivialises the chorale. I’ve highlighted the two most blatant examples but in truth I was unsettled by the speeds at which virtually every chorale is taken. No one wants leaden speeds in the chorales but though I’m uncertain whether the Leipzig congregations would have sung the chorales or just listened to Bach’s singers delivering them broader speeds than we hear in this performance simply seem more logical. I also have to say that I thought the observance of commas in the chorales was often a bit too emphatic and, therefore, fussy. I’m sorry to begin the review with such a strong negative but I’m afraid the treatment of the chorales is a significant obstacle towards recommending this recording.
The choral singing itself is very good. Seymour has a small, flexible group of singers at his command and their singing is never less than incisive. They’re especially strong in the crowd scenes in Part II – sample, for example the lightness and precision in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ (CD 2, track 13). They sing the opening chorus well, though Seymour’s treatment of it is too smooth and legato; there’s not quite the bite, urgency and feeling of suspense that I’ve heard on several other versions. The last chorus of all is also very well done.
All the arias except those for bass are taken by members of the chorus and the degree of success is not quite uniform. Caroline Sartin sings ‘Von den Stricken’ well though, subjectively, her sound is not quite to my taste. Judith Cunnold offers a nice tone in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ though one senses that she’s taxed at times by Bach’s demanding line, having to snatch her breath on several occasions. Tenor Jason Darnell has one of the most demanding solos, ‘Ach mein Sinn’. He makes quite a good job of it though Peter Seymour doesn’t help him by choosing a very swift speed. The pace is very similar to the one adopted in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1986 DG Archiv recording and the effect is the same in both cases: the dotted rhythms sound jerky and it appears that the soloist has to snatch at the phrases. Darnell’s colleague, Joshua Ellicott is presented with no such gratuitous problems in ‘Erwäge’, which he does very well. This is one of the most successful aria performances in this St. John. Another is the wonderful alto aria, ‘Es ist vollbracht’. This is entrusted to Robin Bier and she makes a very good job of it, singing expressively but without any overemphasis or excess of emotion. The viol obbligato is well done also. The final solo contribution from a member of the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists is ‘Zerrfließe, mein Herze’. Bethany Seymour gives a beautifully poised reading of this poignant aria and I enjoyed the pure, silver tone of her voice.
Stephan Loges is, as you would expect, very reliable as Pilate and, in addition, he does the bass arias well, especially ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’, which he delivers with fine expression. Stephen Varcoe is Christus and, experienced singer that he is, he sings intelligently. Unfortunately, I detect little bloom on the voice and his sound is a bit thin at times. I fear Varcoe’s best days may now be behind him.
Charles Daniels brings all his experience to the role of the Evangelist and offers a great deal of finesse and insight. He may not be quite as dramatically searing as Mark Padmore (review) but he’s still expressive and convincing. His narrative in Part II is particularly strong and earlier in the aftermath of Peter’s final denial the plangent sorrow in his voice is most affecting. The quality of the Evangelist is crucial to the success of any performance of a Bach Passion and the choice of Daniels for this assignment was a sound one.
As I’ve said, I do have some issues with Peter Seymour’s tempi. However, he is clearly steeped in this score and he puts across his vision of it convincingly. The St John is the more dramatic of Bach’s Passion settings and under Seymour’s direction the story unfolds with good momentum and with suitable dramatic sense. He gets alert, responsive playing from the instrumentalists.
The recording was made in the excellent modern concert hall at the University of York and the sound is clear and present. The documentation, including an interesting essay by Wilfred Mellers, is good.
There’s quite a lot to enjoy and admire about this York performance of the St John Passion. However, there are many other versions on the market, some of them excellent. I don’t believe that this disturbs existing recommendations.
BBC Music Magazine, December 2010
Performance ***, Recording ****
With Charles Daniels the Evangelist and Stephen Varcoe as Christus (both veterans of period-informed Passion performances for more than 25 years), and with typically thoughtful liner notes from the late Wilfred Mellers, this St John Passion almost induces a whiff of nostalgia. But there is nothing nostalgic about Peter Seymour’s lean, purposeful direction, the imposing opening chorus fastidiously ‘sprung’ yet maintaining gravitas. His choir musters 20 singers from whom soloists for the arias are mostly drawn – though Stephan Loges shoulders most of the bass numbers in addition to singing the role of Pilate – and minimal forces obtain in the orchestra. Immediacy prevails, with chorales brisk (sometimes fussily punctuated) and dramatic flow keenly judged – though it’s a pity that ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ crashes in so soon after Christ has breathed his last. A little more space, and Loges matching the hushed restraint of the chorale- imparting choir, could have lifted a pivotal moment.
The arias are generally neatly turned rather than inspirational and at a somewhat pinched tempo Jason Darnell has to gabble some of the phrases in ‘Ach mein Sinn’, but Charles Daniel’s level-headed Evangelist anchors the narrative thrust with suave sagacity. Some touches are highly compelling, yet in the end this a serviceable St John rather than a great one.
MusicWeb International, November 2010
For many people, the words ‘Bach’ and ‘Yorkshire’ used in the same sentence evoke images of huge choral societies performing the B Minor Mass and the Passions at a dirge pace and accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. In fact, Yorkshire is also the home of the York Early Music Festival, of the excellent York University Music Department, and of the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists. Judging by the number of London-based players in the orchestra, I’m assuming the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists is a professional part-time ensemble. I suspect there is some institutional link with York University, where this was recorded and where all of the soloists seem to have studied, but the liner doesn’t go into detail.
Their St John Passion is an impressive recording. Orchestra, choir and soloists all deliver secure performances, and there are some moments of real beauty. In terms of performance conventions, we are looking at a period instrument orchestra of 14, a choir of 20 and three soloists, with smaller parts taken by singers from the choir. The pitch is A=415hz and the continuo organ is tuned to Valotti temperament. Tempos are in the range of moderate to brisk, but there are no radically fast choruses. The continuo accompaniment is solid and largely undecorated.
The opening chorus, which is really the only chorus in the work, puts the performers through their paces. Both choir and orchestra come through clearly in the audio, with plenty of detail if perhaps a slight lack of presence. The balance of the choir is good, although the tenors struggle a little to compete. In the orchestra, the ensemble of the strings is excellent, but woodwind are the real stars, their individual woody colours mingling beautifully in the introductions and obbligato accompaniments.
Elsewhere, the choir excel in their hushed chorales, which are low key without being unduly restrained – simple but effective. The soloists are an ideal combination, their voices distinctive but complementing each other well. Stephen Logue comes close to stealing the show as Pilate, and the sweetness of his tone in the upper register suggests his potential is not limited to bass roles. Charles Daniels is suitably declamatory as the Evangelist; a little more tone in his recitatives might be nice, but not if it is at the expense of his exemplary diction.
All round then, an impressive John Passion. In the grand scheme of things, it may seem a little unadventurous for being middle-of-the-road, interpretively speaking. But this is a performance that takes on board many lessons from the history of the period performance movement – with the notable exception of those from Joshua Rifkin. It has plenty of life and never goes to excesses of tempo or dynamics to make its point. And it doesn’t force any more drama on the work than it can handle. A coherent, articulate and engaging performance that balances well the work’s twin identities as narrative and contemplation.
The Gramophone, January 2011
Just as one celebrates the best of those atmospheric recordings of Bach in the 1950s and ’60s from the less glamorous regions of Germany – such as Pforzheim and Bremen – so this new expressive landscape from Yorkshire brings a distinctive corporate identity and vision to the St John Passion.
Peter Seymour selects his soloists from the widest pool, including one of Britain’s most experienced and responsive Evangelists, Charles Daniels. The choir, the female solo parts and small "roles", on the other hand, are drawn from young musicians with close family or educational connections to the county. Although some of the solo vocal contributions are brittle, the projection of the sense of the text is unfailingly successful: both "Ich folge" and "Ach, mein Sinn", for example, may not stand technical scrutiny alongside seasoned recordings by the likes of Gardiner, Herreweghe and Rilling but the essence of meaning is embedded in every sinew of the lines.
The results are indeed as dramatically coherent and satisfying as I’ve heard for a while. Seymour’s considered pacing begins with a pungent and deliberately graphic opening chorus – the choir are disarmingly flexible and communicative throughout – but extends into a brilliantly judged world of elision between crowd chorus, aria, chorale and narrative; when stillness comes – and it arrives especially strikingly in Stephan Loges’s exquisite arioso, "Betrachte" – the impact is served well by a realistic, rolling and unforced sense of narrative.
Unusually, this is not a journey we recognise at every turn. The over-pointing of the chorales makes for some unnecessary rhetorical mannerisms but when the stakes are highest (such as "Er nahm", which movingly reflects the crucified Jesus honouring his mother), Seymour lets the music speak for itself. Other than the ever-engaged and intelligent Daniels, and Loges’s involving presence (and let’s not forget Varcoe’s gently cultivated Jesus), the most telling solo work comes from Joshua Ellicott. His "Erwage" is wonderfully shaded and characterised. "Es ist vollbracht" doesn’t, alas, quite live up to its pivotal potential.
Despite some uneven contributions (including a few ragged corners in the strings), this is a St John which carries open-hearted conviction and character before it. Only Wilfrid Mellers’s surreal essay appears at odds with the directness and lucidity of this searching account. He writes, "Come to think of it, this is why Bach’s piece ‘passes understanding’; there is nothing to understand in the quietude of a cabbage."