Sandy Vaughan wrote (April 29, 2006):
Hi. This is my first 'proper' post to the list, so do bear with me.. A bit unseasonal now, but I recently received a copy of Kenneth Slowik's 1990 recording of the St John Passion with the Smithsonian Chamber Players and Chorus, picked up second hand. I listened to BWV 245 a lot over Easter (recordings by Richter, Kuijken and Suzuki) and so find myself in a reasonable position to give my - very subjective - opinion.
The basics, such as sound and liner notes, are excellent: the recording has a lovely clarity to it, and also puts across a warm acoustic. Slowik used a chorus of twelve, distributed equally among SATB and took soloists from this group. Despite the fact that the arias are taken by various members of the chorus - or perhaps because of this - the recording has a fine consistency to it. I like this idea of the chorus members 'stepping forward' to deliver the arias.
My overall impression is of a performance which hangs together very well indeed. I think as a whole it has a very effective narrative 'drive'. The soloists do an excellent job: occasionally I spotted a few minor examples of non-perfect pronunciation which might bother some. The singers taking the parts of the evangelist (Jeffrey Thomas) and Jesus (James F. Weaver) turn in very good performances: the former keeps things moving along with a good sense of the drama; the latter is perhaps slightly reserved, but very moving, for example, at the end of Jesus' life.
I've found myself in recent weeks listening to different versions of the arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' and aria 'Mein teurer Heiland', both for bass, as pieces which I enjoy out of the context of the whole piece. The former is sung here by Paul Rowe and the latter by James F. Weaver. Both of these may perhaps suffer by direct comparison with favourites - I have a particular fondness for Max van Egmond's voice and his arias in Kuijken's recording - but are performed to a very high standard and work well within their context, which is I think the most important thing for them to do. Overall, this is a performance in which all the musicians work together to achieve a consistent and unified vision, rather than one in which individuals stand out. And the final chorale 'Ach Herr...' (playing now!) is particularly lovely.
I'd like to reiterate I have no expertise in putting across my thoughts - as will be quite clear from what I've written above! But I've very much enjoyed this performance and am happy to have added it to my collection of recordings of the SJP. I'll leave the last words to Slowik from the notes, who I think puts across well the relationship between scholarship and musicianship, and that between composer, musician and listener:
"we have based our interpretation on the belief that, helpful as the written sources may be in establishing the composer's intentions, they convey only some of the indications necessary for a good performance, and only a fraction of the profound psychological and emotional content of the work. The remainder must be supplied by the skill of the performers in sharing their understanding of the piece, and by the listeners themselves through their willingness to allow the composer to speak directly to them [...] with all the vitality, immediacy, and relevance of his timeless musical utterances."