John Eliot Gardiner, together with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, adds a new reading of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion to his remarkable legacy of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Boasting a team of exceptional young soloists and choral singing hallmarked by intense drama, expressive nuance and spellbinding musicianship, the album was recorded in the ornate surroundings of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre on Good Friday 2021. It is set for release on 4 March 2022 as a deluxe edition consisting of 2 CDs and a Blu-ray disc which offers the audio recording and the film of the performance in various sound formats, including the immersive Dolby Atmos. The audio recording will also be released digitally.
The critically acclaimed performance, sung from memory, was originally streamed live on DG Stage. “The crowd choruses were thrillingly delivered,” noted The Times (London). “Even better was the way Gardiner shaped every word of the chorales for maximum emotional impact.” Seen and Heard International praised the conductor for building “cumulative tension” across the work’s two parts, while Bachtrack’s five-star review judged his interpretation to be “operatically gripping, concentrated and true to life” and summed up the event as “an Easter miracle from Oxford”.
“The St. John Passion is a strikingly powerful music drama,” comments John Eliot Gardiner. “We had planned to perform the work on tour, but lockdowns and international travel restrictions meant that became impossible. I was very pleased that Deutsche Grammophon proposed recording and filming a performance without an in-person audience, and delighted that we were able to do this at the Sheldonian, a place that has housed the secular rituals of Oxford University since before Bach was born, and which offered us some innovative ways of staging this theatrical work, while also allowing for social distancing. Given the then recent events in Washington, it felt timely to present a piece that shows what can happen when the mob takes over. The story, in its profound humanity, speaks to people of all faiths and none.”
The Sheldonian Theatre, the ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1664 and 1669. It is crowned by an eight‑sided cupola, offering panoramic views of this “city of dreaming spires”, while its horseshoe-shaped auditorium includes a magnificent 32‑panel painted ceiling, the work of Robert Streater, court painter to Charles II.
The theatre’s internal architecture, with its ranks of seats and pulpits intended for senior university figures, was used here to create the sense of a courtroom, with Christ brought before Pilate (bass-baritone Alex Ashworth) surrounded by the crowd baying for blood. The Evangelist (tenor Nick Pritchard), pivots from his position in a pulpit to variously address Jesus (bass William Thomas), the crowd and the audience beyond, enhancing the idea of the three-time frames at play in the performance: the biblical age, Bach’s time and the present day. The vividness of the performance is further heightened by the 3D immersive sound of Dolby Atmos.
Bach’s great choral masterwork was first performed in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche on Good Friday 1724. The composer, as so often in his work, built on an existing Lutheran tradition of musical settings of the Passion story to create an oratorio of revolutionary power and brilliance. Its mix of human drama, profound spiritual contemplation and optimistic promise of comfort and renewal must have taken its Leipzig audience by storm almost three hundred years ago; John Eliot Gardiner’s performance, likewise, connects with the political and existential concerns of our own age, from the uncertainties and sorrows caused by the coronavirus pandemic to the all too often violent confrontations between competing ideologies.