The St John Passion, performed as it was here without an interval, is a long slog by anyone’s estimation.
No, conductor Philippe Herreweghe could not sustain collective interest through every bar of Bach’s choral masterpiece, but this performance at the Barbican on Thursday evening was nevertheless packed with morsels to savour.
Not least the performance of Christoph Prgardien, who took one of the more arduous and unrewarding Baroque tenor roles – that of the Evangelist – and illuminated every line, both musically and expressively, to near perfection.
Herreweghe’s interpretation, though, was an occasionally tricky beast. His beat tended to awkwardly expand and contract with the pulse of the music; one aria could be swamped with thick, syrupy textures, and the next given such laser-like accompanying lines that the voice felt unsupported. But then it all seemed to work in the long run, and the orchestra of the Collegium Vocale Gent provided one of the most mellifluous and technically proficient performances of this work that I have heard in a while.
Take the vibrant central section of the alto aria Es ist vollbracht. Not content with blasting through the pacy writing with multi-coloured bombast, conductor and orchestra explored the intricacies of the orchestration, especially emphasising the dialogue between solo voice and cellos.
Sensitivity was the key throughout, and if this interpretation occasionally lost some drama, it gained much in terms of both poignancy and aural splendour. Equally thrilling was the choir of the Collegium Vocale Gent, whose sections combined like a dream throughout and provided superb support in Part Two‘s two bass-and-choir arias.
And the soloists were pretty fine too. More bad news for the Barbican came with the withdrawal of Peter Kooij, but Christian Immler made a valiant attempt to sing the baritone role of Pilate. While Immler lacks a powerful voice, he is a real stage animal, with unkempt facial hair, unbuttoned shirt and a dynamic posture on the podium. It was hardly surprising when, for his first aria in Part Two, he strode from his awkwardly positioned stand and placed himself bang in the middle of the stage. Physically, this was a Pilate to be reckoned with.
Soprano Camilla Tilling stood firmly astride every phrase and breathed it sweetly up to the top tier, while alto Ingeborg Danz made up for an early lack of projection with a gorgeous vocal bloom in the Part Two aria. Meanwhile, the ‘other’ tenor, Jan Kobow, coped manfully with his aria Erwge, one of the most challenging things that Bach wrote. It was a true ensemble performance.