A Passion with just the right level of passion in the Barbican Hall.
Before a staged performance of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion at the Royal Festival Hall in 2019, director Peter Sellars described the experience of attending (what was probably) the first public airing of the work on 7 April 1724. It constituted part of the Good Friday Vespers, and worshippers knew they would be settling into Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche for the day. Part I would have been followed by a two and a half hour sermon, and Sellars suggested that Bach, knowing this, had purposely kept the preceding music to just 40 minutes. He also felt, however, that as soon as Part II begins it almost sounds as if Bach is saying to the preacher “Thank you, now I’ll take it from here”.
At a distance of exactly 299 years, since this year Good Friday also fell on 7 April, our instant reaction is to picture divine music being broken up at that first performance by a long and pedestrian ‘interlude’. The original congregation, however, would probably have had no sense of the music being on a higher level to the words that were proclaimed between its two parts, perceiving both elements to be of equal standing and value. One thing that is certain, however, is that the Britten Sinfonia’s performance of the St John Passion, BWV 245 in the Barbican Hall needed no additions, since everything felt so perfectly measured that it made for the most complete experience in its own right. It was undoubtedly easy to feel the expressive immediacy and visceral drama of the work, and yet because nothing was ever pushed to extremes the listener could still feel that the performance was allowing them to undergo a period of quiet reflection.
Many elements went into making this such a successful performance, but the Britten Sinfonia’s total command of the piece provided the basis from which all else followed. With a few obvious exceptions such as the lower strings, all instrumentalists stood whenever they played, and this seemed to aid the drive and coherence of the performance in a very tangible way. There was no separate conductor but violinist Jacqueline Shave directed the proceedings, and watching how she did so through her own expressive playing was fascinating. In the bass arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ she was one of the instrumentalists playing, but she remained standing just a little longer than the others at its end to help maintain continuity with the tenor aria ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ that followed. She was not directly involved in the latter, but during it one could witness her keeping everything under control by ever so subtly beating out the rhythm. This act, however, was not so obtrusive as to prevent those actually playing in the aria from achieving their own natural sense of flow.
“…Britten Sinfonia’s performance… needed no additions…”
The chorus comprising the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, under its director of music Benjamin Nicholas, was extremely strong, with its sound complementing the tone of the performance as a whole. The opening ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ felt quite formidable, but because enunciation and pronunciation were excellent and the output very precise, the sound felt as calming and reflective as it did overwhelming and extravagant. The choir’s ability to convey a range of moods by showing an exquisite attention to detail continued throughout the performance with the penultimate ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine’ feeling highly moving as a result, and the very final ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein’ offering just the right sense of hope.
The pace of the performance was also nigh on perfect. There were a few seconds of pause after, for example, key arias, which were necessary and stopped the evening from feeling too unrelenting. As a rule, however, this Passion was allowed to keep moving in the most calm and understated way. With the exception of the Evangelist and Jesus who remained centre stage throughout, the soloists sat to one side of the orchestra and quietly came to the front when required. In some cases, when the music permitted, they did not even start moving into place until the introduction to the aria had started, and, once again, the smooth management of such movements aided the overall flow of the piece. At the end of Part I Pawel Siwczak played additional music on the organ as all of the singers and instrumentalists quietly exited the stage. This ensured that, even during the interval, everyone remained in the right frame of mind, and it alluded to those first performances where the Good Friday Vespers would have seen the focus move from one element to another in a highly dignified manner.
Soloists Rachel Redmond, Anita Monserrat, Anthony Gregory and Malachy Frame all played their parts to the full, but the highest accolades go to Gwilym Bowen as the Evangelist and Michael Mofidian as Jesus. Their centrality to the evening placed a significant burden of responsibility on each, and both rose to the challenge superbly. Bowen revealed a tenor that was highly precise and possessed of a lightness of touch that aided the flexibility he revealed in phrasing his lines. Mofidian displayed a deep, broad and quite dark bass that felt highly compelling, and contributed handsomely to making this such an engaging performance all round.
• For details of all of the Britten Sinfonia and Choir of Merton College, Oxford’s recordings and future events visit their respective websites.
• For details of all upcoming concerts at the venue visit the Barbican website.