April 04, 2017

Marc Minkowski releases long-awaited Bach St John's Passion for Easter

This new landmark recording features one voice per part - no chorus - in a stellar line-up of Bach singers.

The foundations of Marc Minkowski’s career lie in Baroque music, and he has enjoyed a long relationship with Warner Classics and Erato, but his new Johannes-Passion (St John Passion) is the first Bach he has recorded for the label.

The tersely dramatic Johannes-Passion, ideally suited to both his scrupulous musicianship and his keen sense of theatre, follows the B minor Mass into his catalogue. It was with that work that he made his first foray into recorded Bach. “I waited a long time,” explains Minkowski, “first of all because, at the time of my first albums in the 1980s, Bach was the Baroque composer most frequently recorded; I had the impression that nobody needed me in this repertoire … and also because I didn’t feel ready. I never stopped thinking about it, though. Nearly 30 years ago, when I played bassoon in the St Matthew Passion conducted by Philippe Herreweghe, I was already thinking about it … but wanting to do it is simply not enough. The Mass, the Passions: there are no higher summits; it is a journey you have to prepare for meticulously, over a long period of time, and you come back from it like an explorer comes back from Everest or the Moon – transformed.”

Minkowski’s ultimate impetus to tackle Bach becomes clear in an interview he gave to Washington-based Ionarts: “After doing a lot of different repertoire, after performing a lot of Handel, Rameau, 19th-century composers … there came a moment where I had to go to the roots of this music, which all come from Bach – so I thought it was time.” His Bach recording debut was warmly welcomed. Gramophone wrote that “the most outstanding aspects of this performance involve the linear focus and Minkowski's musical instinct to draw out the imagery with discrimination”. The Sunday Times praised its “drama and brilliance” and The Observer, speaking of “glorious moments” and “peaks of perfection”, said that: “Marc Minkowski chose his international soloists – who combine to sing the choral sections – with infinite care. Their balance is superb, aided by his sensitive direction of the sublime Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble.”

For this new recording of the Johannes-Passion, Minkowski has once again adopted the practice, advocated by such scholar-performers as Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, of using a small group of singers. There is no chorus: all the vocal music is performed by just nine soloists, and joining the instrumentalists of Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble are sopranos Ditte Andersen and Lenneke Ruiten, altos Delphine Galou and David Hansen, tenors Lothar Odinius, Valerio Contaldo and Colin Balzer, and basses Christian Immler and Felix Speer. “We sought to gather together nine distinct voices,” says Minkowski, “voices which would form a genuine ensemble and could surmount without apparent effort the technical and expressive difficulties of the arias. All the singers have a career in the opera house, but all of them have also been singing Bach since childhood: Bach is their first language … In the cantatas and oratorios of Bach, nothing is ever turned inwards, towards oneself; everything is an offering. And indeed there are no characters as such: this is literally the incarnation of the Word.”

Speaking to Le Monde, Minkowski explained his decision to go ‘one per part’: “It follows the musicological trend which proves more and more persuasively that Bach used a single singer for both the solo and choral parts. I find it an interesting challenge to do simultaneous justice to the transparency, polyphony, intimacy and grandeur of these works … I admire the large-scale versions conducted by, say, Peter Schreier and Günther Ramin, but I want to try my hand too, and my love for opera draws me to the Passions.”

Marc Minkowski's Bach: Johannes-Passion is out now.