This Passion is great in its own right. If the St.Matthew Passion did not exist, this work could almost take its place. Right from the opening bars it will be evident that great music is on its way, and it doesn't let up throughout the entire piece.
Structurally, the work is almost identical to the St. Matthew Passion, in that it is made up of Recitatives, choruses, and arias. A character named "Evangelist" tells the details of the story in recatitive; arias typically express the feelings of individual characters; and the choruses provide emotional and spiritual reflection on the current scenes. The piece is meant for Christian consumption, and allows the listener to identify with Jesus' suffering and sacrifice through music. Music doesn't typically get more religious than this. However, the music is so amazing that it can be enjoyed even on a non-religious level.
John Eliot Gardiner, The English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir are all in top form here. The performances are impeccable.
The 76-page CD booklet contains a fascinating history of the passion form. It delineates the change in christianity away from a more Augustinian passion emphasizing redemption towards a more Fransiscan direct and immediate sympathy with Christ's suffering. This is the source of the Passion Play, and this tradition evolved into the form heard on Bach's incredible Passions (and the form is still going strong, controversially, at least according to recent box office sales).
Listeners who find the St. Matthew Passion to be an "I felt the earth move" kind of experience will not be disappointed whatsoever with the St. John Passion. Though it's not as grand or as esteemed, it contains music of the same high quality. Now if we could just find those other three Passions...