Is the St John Passion a deeply emotional experience, in which the soloists and choir aim to sear the narrative into our souls, or is it rather a beautiful musical work, performed so as to highlight the glory of Bach’s genius? Of course both strands may be possible in a single performance, but when that is the case there can be a conflict between sensibility and disinterestedness. The tenor Mark Padmore’s view that “The story of a man being tortured, humiliated and crucified should not leave us untroubled and reflecting only on the beauty of the music…” is one we share, and it was the emotional drive of some of this performance which made it memorable.
The most searing contributions of the evening were made by the Christus, Neal Davies, aka ‘The Voice of God,’ and Polyphony, aka ‘the’ choir if you want all that chorales can possibly be. Neal has no equals in terms of authority, nobility and ardour, evoking both admiration and empathy, from the solemn declaration of ‘Siehe, dieselbigen wissen, was ich gesagt habe’ to the tear-inducing ‘Siehe, das ist deine Mutter!’
His performance was matched perfectly with that of the choir, giving a powerfully dramatic entry at ‘Herr, unser Herrscher,’ a sombre, prayerful ‘Ich, ich und meine Sünden’, and a stunningly phrased and sustained ‘In meines Herzens Grunde.’ The final chorale, ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb’ Engelein’ left us all emotionally drained, that closing ‘ich will dich preisen ewiglich!’ echoing long after the final note had died away.
Ashley Riches was a finely characterized Pilatus, giving a well judged account of the character, especially in phrases such as ‘Sehet, das ist euer König.’ His performance of the bass arias was a little underpowered, although ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ was suitably moving. Nick Pritchard’s Evangelist is more of the dispassionate narrator than the involved disciple, his recitatives crisply done if not always as moving as they could be, especially in moments such as ‘ Als nun Jesus wusste alles, was ihm begegnen sollte…’
Anna Dennis was replacing Julia Doyle at what was presumably short notice, so a little nervousness was to be expected, but she give a spirited, joyful account of ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ and displayed purity of tone in ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze.’ Helen Charlson was firmly on the ‘voice as an instrument’ side, with ‘Es ist vollbracht’ fluently sung yet rather detached in style. Hiroshi Amako’s tenor solos are a work in progress; for so young a singer he has an impressive CV.
The Britten Sinfonia was brilliantly directed by Stephen Layton, giving the most unified and collaborative performance whilst showcasing some truly great individual contributions. Jonathan Rees’ playing of the viola da gamba and ‘cello in ‘Es ist vollbracht’ and ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ was simply perfection, whilst the oboes of Nicholas Daniel and Emma Feilding weaved their way mellifluously through chorales and solos. All united in a peerless ‘Ruht wohl’ and ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb’ Engelein.’