Systematic Discussions of Bach’s Other Vocal Works
Johannes-Passion BWV 245 - Part 7: Summary
Discussions in the Week of September 19, 2004
Neil Halliday wrote (September 25, 2004):
SJP Summary.: recitatives
Those who like the *unaccompanied* style of 'secco' recitative are well catered for with the available recordings - Rilling, plus all the HIP recordings.
On behalf of those who are averse to this somewhat archaic-sounding music genre, and are interested in the possibilities of an artistically performed continuo realisation (and a quick check of the internet reviews reveals just how widespread is the antipathy toward 'unaccompanied' recitative amongst ordinary music lovers), I propose that musicians look at more adventurous presentations of the secco recitatives of both extant Bach passions. This is a more significant issue in the passions than in the cantatas, because recitative plays a more significant role in the Passions.
Richter's SJP starts out on the right foot; in the very first recitative he has the organ beginning with moderately soft long-held chords, whereupon at the first mention of Judas' name (half-way through the recitative), the registration increases suddenly to moderately loud, thereby effectively introducing an element of alarm into the narrative.
Another piece of high drama (in the Richter recording) is achieved by means of the double forte long-held organ chord (as notated), at the beginning the "And see there, the curtain of the temple was ripped in two, from the top to the bottom" recitative (just before the continuo races from the top to the bottom!).
Koopman, by contrast (ignoring the ties over the long held D sharp in the bass, thus leaving his vocalist trying to present the drama completely without instrumental assistance), sounds positively, incongruously dainty by comparison. Rilling, with similar approach, fares not much better than Koopman.
[I recognise that sometimes moments of high drama are achieved by the vocalist alone, with minimal instrumental assistance, in passages such as "And he lowered his head, and died" in the SJP, and "and the cock crew... and he wept bitterly" in the SMP.].
However, I have to say that overall, even much of Richter's SJP recitative treatment is hardly more interesting than the 'unaccompanied' method of Rilling and Koopman. This is because of the mostly unvarying, moderatlely soft (and 'soporific') organ registration used throughout most of the work, which eventually ensures the recitatives become as predictable as those that have only occasional short chords of unvarying orchestration, as with Rilling and Koopman.
My solution would be to have the whole armory of continuo instruments available, ie, organ, harpsichord, lute (and maybe even piano), as well as the bass strings); and, in those recitatives with multiple actors - evangelist, Jesus, Pilate, Peter, etc, - to assign a particular instrumental combination to a particular actor. (The possible different combinations of continuo instruments becomes very large).
This would allow the listener to always experience each recitative as a new and interesting movement, rather than dreading the appearance of 'another boring recitative'.
The over-riding principle should be that, just as Bach has given us many wonderful 'accompanied' recitatives, in which he has supplied parts for specific instruments such as upper strings, winds and sometimes even brass, as well as continuo, so performers of the 'continuo' ('secco') recitatives ought to supply the 'orchestration', through imaginative, artistic continuo realistion.
[To my knowledge, there are no 'accompanied' recitatives in the SJP, although at times the continuo part is rather striking, eg, the highly chromatic passage in "and he wept biterly'. Note that in the corresponding place in the SMP, the chromaticism is mostly confined to the vocal part].
An observation: while the difference in notation of the 'secco' recitatives in the SMP and the SJP is a curiosty, it is unlkely that Bach conceived of a different style of performance for the two Passions. Regardless of this (and it is an amazing fact that we don't actually know how Bach performed them - a sad commentary on how easily the past slips into oblivion), I hope that musicians presenting this music for 'non-specialist' music lovers of the 21st century and beyond, consider the suggestions above as a way of ever renewing the attachment of such listeners to this music, such that they can listen to the entire work with total dedication and wonderment.
Johannes-Passion BWV 245: Details
Recordings: Until 1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Sung in English | Individual Movements
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Systematic Discussions: Part 1: Mvts. 1-7 | Part 2: Mvts. 6-14 | Part 3: Mvts. 15-20 | Part 4: Mvts. 21-26 | Part 5: Mvts. 27-32 | Part 6: Mvts. 36-40 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings: BWV 245 - Brüggen | BWV 245 - Cleobury | BWV 245 – Dombrecht | BWV 245 - Fasolis | BWV 245 - Gardiner | BWV 245 - Harnoncourt-Gillesberger | BWV 245 – Herreweghe | BWV 245 - Higginbottom | BWV 245 – Jochum | BWV 245 – Leusink | BWV 245 - McCreesh | BWV 245 - Neumann | BWV 245 - Parrott | BWV 245 - Richter | BWV 245 – Schreier | BWV 245 – Shaw | BWV 245 - Suzuki
Articles: Saint John Passion, BWV 245 (by Teri Noel Towe)