The dripping blood our only drink / the bloody flesh our only food: In spite of which we like to think / That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood – Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (T.S. Eliot, East Coker from Four Quartets.)
Bach’s St John Passion is the perfect work for Good Friday, given its visceral drama and its concentration on the suffering of Christ and its relationship to our own attitude to spirituality. As Mark Padmore, one of the most prominent interpreters of the part of the Evangelist, has said “The story of a man being tortured, humiliated and crucified should not leave us untroubled and reflecting only on the beauty of the music.” This is the key to Stephen Layton and Polyphony’s unique presentation of the work, in which there is beauty aplenty but the vital concentration is in the searing drama, especially in the chorales and St John’s narrative.
Under Layton’s direction, Polyphony has established itself as the choir of which it can almost always be said that it is the star of the evening – only when all of the soloists are absolutely top notch can the singing be described as surpassing that of this small but dynamic group, and on this occasion the solo performances were not uniformly ideal.
Every word of the chorales seemed imbued with significance, from the solemn, sorrowful closing lines of ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ to the glorious exultation of ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb’ Engelein.’ Equally remarkable were the superbly delineated phrases ‘verlacht, verhohnt und verspelt’ (scoffed at, scorned and spat upon) in ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’ and the deeply affecting singing of the central ‘Er nahm alles wohl in acht,’ with its wonderfully consoling message.
The moving quality of the chorales was matched by Neal Davies’ performance as Christus; it would be difficult to imagine singing more eloquent, more touching or more dramatic than his. He brings out all the strength and steadiness of the character as well as the vulnerability, the former most evident in ‘Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt’ and the latter in ‘Mich dürstet!’ There cannot have been many dry eyes amongst the audience at ‘Siehe, das ist deine Mutter!’
Nick Pritchard has been going from strength to strength as the Evangelist, and here he gave a heartfelt account of the narrative, very much in the Peter Schreier style, telling the story with directness and empathy. He rose to all the technical challenges such as the lines about Peter’s denial (und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich) and he phrased the crucial ‘Als nun Jesus wusste alles, was ihm begegnen sollte’ (Jesus therefore, knowing everything that was to happen to him) with both significance and tenderness.
Things were less remarkable on the other side of the stage. Ashley Riches was a superbly conflicted Pilatus, but his fairly light voice was not ideal for ‘Mein teurer Heiland,’ in which Jonathan Rees’ brilliant viola da gamba playing provided the chief delight. In ‘Betrachte, meine Seele’ it was similarly the first violin’s accompaniment which held the ear.
Helen Charlston has a remarkable technique and dignified presence, and her singing of ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ gave a fine example of both, although her ‘instrument-like’ tone may not please everyone. Rowan Pierce sang her arias sweetly and gracefully, as Ruairi Bowen aimed to do with his, but seemed not quite ready for the considerable challenges of ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ and ‘Erwäge.’
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided wonderful continuo support for the singers, and as usual the oboes (Katharina Spreckelson, Sarah Humphrys) and the cellos (Jonathan Rees, Hugh Mackay) shone brightly, as did the double bass (Jan Zahourek.) Overall, the playing was as responsive as ever to Layton’s direction, but on this occasion, seemed a touch sluggish at times. Perhaps it was the heat, on this unseasonably warm Good Friday during which we witnessed audience members doing what we’ve never before seen anyone at St John’s do – which is peeling off layers of jumpers and scarves.