Conventional scholarly wisdom has it that the earlier of Johann Sebastian Bach's two surviving Passion settings--the one, "according to the Gospel of St. John"--is flawed by not being of a stylistic piece, having been revised numerous times between its conception in 1723 and the end of the composer's life.
Then, too, it is frequently pointed out, to the work's detriment, that the "St. John" Passion draws on too wide a variety of textual sources, some having nothing to do with the Gospels. Taken as a whole, then, it should be regarded as inferior to the later, better-known and longer "St. Matthew" Passion. Which, of course, is nonsense.
The two are dissimilar, most obviously in the contrast between the realistic, dramatic depiction of the crucifixion in "St. John" and the epic, contemplative setting of the "St. Matthew"--signaled by the fact that in the latter, Jesus' words are always surrounded by an aureole of glowing strings, whereas in "St. John" a simple keyboard-cello continuo accompanies and characterizes its more human --and tragic--Jesus.
If recordings are any indication (and they usually are), "St. John" is gaining ground, what with two new versions, the first in at least a decade, just released. Both employ period instruments.
John Eliot Gardiner, who leads his superb Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 419 324, LP or CD, two discs), takes the more dramatic conceptual route, focusing on the score's conflicts from the outset--as, indeed, Bach does with the agitated, grindingly dissonant opening chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, our master).
In the other recording, American harpsichordist-conductor Anthony Newman, directing from the keyboard the accomplished forces of something identified only as "The Brandenburg Collegium Orchestra and Chorus," takes a more weighty, solemn approach to the opening chorus and to the drama which ensues (Newport Classics 60015/2, two CDs).
Both versions offer strong solo vocal work, with little to choose between the expressive Evangelists: Gardiner's excitable Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Newman's more contemplative Jeffrey Thomas. Both baritones--Newman's William Sharp and Gardiner's Stephen Varcoe--are well contrasted in their portrayals of Jesus, the former defiant, the latter tragically resigned. And both soprano soloists are first-rate: Newman's Julianne Baird womanly and touching, Gardiner's Nancy Argenta, with her pure, boyish voice meshing with the orchestra's vibratoless winds.
Ultimately, Gardiner's edition is the more stylistically, and dramatically, convincing, some of its principal virtues and Newman's more damaging defects encapsulated in the astonishing "Mein teurer Heiland" (My beloved Savior) in which, simultaneously, the bass soloist (the rough John Ostendorf for Newman, the gentle Cornelius Hauptmann for Gardiner) sings an aria with continuo while the chorus intones a seemingly unrelated chorale.
Newman utilizes Bach's sublime inspiration to spotlight his own skills as a harpsichordist with a distractingly elaborate realization of the keyboard continuo. The mere sound of the harpsichord, bright and piercing, adds an inappropriately frivolous note to much of the Newman venture, especially as recorded with the unrealistically grandiose presence favored by the Newport Classics engineers.
Gardiner's choice of organ as the keyboard continuo, its part executed with simple dignity by Alastair Ross, seems much the wiser.
Handel's single Passion setting, an early, pre-London work, is dismissed by scholars as being a youthful folly. But the principal object of their disdain is the libretto, by one Heinrich Brockes, which dispenses with the Gospel texts--and dramatic continuity--in favor of Brockes' own homely, relentlessly upbeat observations on the earthly rewards enjoyed by the pious: in effect, the Gospel According to Pollyanna.
But rotten texts never did stand in the way of Handel's inspiration, and the "Brockes" Passion proves, to anyone who cares to listen, to be a vast collection of memorable tunes: a thematic seedbed, as it turned out, for several of the great Handel oratorios and operas to come.
The "Brockes" Passion is given its due and then some on the Hungaroton label (12734-36, three CDs), where it is performed with enormous skill and enthusiasm by the period-instrument Capella Savaria of Budapest, the Stadtsingechor of Halle (Handel's birthplace) in East Germany, and a huge contingent of vocal soloists from Hungary, Austria, Belgium and the United States.
The conducting wizard who organizes these disparate forces, and Handel's score, into a coherent musical experience is Nicholas McGegan, the versatile young Englishman best known in these parts for his work with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of San Francisco and Long Beach Opera.