Brisk and gripping, overwhelming and awe-some: the opening of the St. John Passion with the Bavarian Radio Chorus under their long-time artistic director, Peter Dijkstra, is a dramatic entry into a very effective new recording of this often recorded masterpiece.
It’s a true hybrid performance, rather than traditional or historically informed (HIP), in that the orchestral crew is an all-out historically informed, period performance engine – namely the fabulous Concerto Köln – but the chorus, though keenly aware of all the trends, dogmas, and true insights of historical performance, is about 36 throats strong. That is, by today’s desired standards (and by Bach’s grudgingly accepted standards) huge.
The BR Chorus happens to be one of the very, very best choruses around, though, and these three dozen singers, working in smaller ensembles, have the uncanny ability to sing truly as one. They can turn on a dime and execute with a razor’s edge. Such an exactitude is rare, at allows us to hear a hybrid modern-traditional/HIP choral performance without making compromises on the precision and clarity of the text we are used to from One-Voice-Per-Part (OVPP) performances while still getting properly walloped.
The cast of soloists is a young, economical, none-too-famous ensemble without any the usual suspects among HIP Bach singers. By and large they neither add nor detract from the excellence of this St. John Passion, with excellent, slightly neutral, musical performances. Ulrike Malotta’s aptly non-naïve, dramatic alto fits her parts; Christina Landshammer’s pointed soprano is charming and ever precise, and the male side of the cast is similarly splendid-but-neutral. What is lacking is a real textual delivery which would heighten the great drama of this work… but perhaps that’s only a matter for those who follow the German text very closely. It reminds me in that way of another excellent recent album on BR Klassik, Simon Rattle’s Rheingold, which is full or orchestral splendor – perhaps more than just about any other recording – but with the singers distinctly lacking in dramatic presentation of what’s going on and instead only being focused on sounding beautiful: Ideal for anyone who might otherwise prefer “The Ring without Words” and isn’t as much sold on the story-telling abilities of Wagner.
Still, there is one notable surprise for me among the cast members: Julian Prégardien. I have gotten to experience him as a slightly self-conscious young tenor in the awkward position of surpassing his father – Christoph Prégardien, a reasonably famous, still active, once excellent (if never quite top-notch) tenor himself. Most notably at the Schubertiade (reviewed here: A Father & Son Duo of Tenors); most disappointingly in Zelenka (reviewed here: Zelenka to fall in Love with at the Konzerthaus); most charmingly in a Chabrier opera (reviewed here: High Camp With Elegance: Alden’s Fabulously Entertaining L’étoile). In any case I’ve found him a singer in search of an identity, either too occupied with the sound he makes – or not at all. And here he’s wonderful! He comes across as a confident, mellifluous, and all-round pleasant youthfully authoritative Evangelist. (His father was a very notable Evangelist in some of my favorite performances and recordings – Brüggen, Leonhardt, Max.) Granted, Julian Prégardien hasn’t the haunting, arresting qualities of a Mark Padmore (see the Forbes review of Peter Sellars’ St John Passion From Berlin), but he’s well above average and, if anything, a strength, not a weak spot, of this recording.
Anyone who likes the Bach recordings of Riccardo Chailly, big-boned orchestral HIP-scented hybrids with an edge, will find this appealing: That approach turned on its head in a way, with the orchestra being the slim but punchy motor and the chorus being relatively large (but stirring), in comparison. All in all it’s a wonderful recording adding to, if not replacing, recent and time-honored standard-bearers
ALBUM FROM JANE IRA BLOOM
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robert baird, karl rubinson
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james R. oestreich
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Recording the 2017 Chelsea Music Festival in AMBEO 3D audio was an exciting opportunity for us to try out Sennheiser’s latest immersive audio technology. We had attended past iterations of the festival, so we knew to expect world-class performances throughout. The main venue for these performances was the cathedral-like interior at St. Paul’s German Lutheran Church, a noted venue for audiophile classical and jazz recordings in the 80s and 90s that is both acoustically pleasing and wonderfully intimate. My husband and colleague Jim Anderson and I had learned about the AMBEO format at the Sennheiser pop-up store in SoHo and knew immediately that it would be:
"perfect for capturing this special event in a way that included not simply the notes that were played but the energy and experience of being in the space during the performance.“ Ulrike Anderson
Our setup for the event included the eight microphones suspended above the audience required to generate the AMBEO cube, plus an additional front-facing stereo A/B pair pointed toward the stage—all Sennheiser microphones and many of the same selections we’ve trusted for numerous recordings in all formats. This setup gives us both the perspective of the audience being there live in the room, but also an optimized recording due to the closer microphones, ensuring we have plenty of options to bring out the best experience during the mix.
The setup is sure to render remarkable fidelity. Bass-heavy instruments in particular sound markedly better when you bring them into 3D, so I expect both the performances and recording clarity to be spectacular. Jim and I both have extensive experience working in 5.1 surround, and I have even trained on 22.2 systems in Japan as far back as 2006. We feel that AMBEO represents an exciting leap forward for three-dimensional audio..It’s great to take things into the next dimension with Sennheiser, and we are eager to dig into these mixes and bring out the magic of the Chelsea Music Festival.