Bach: St John Passion (Concert Review - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2016) Translation

Witnesses of a trial

An English guest performance: St John Passion in the Alte Oper

Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a pre-Easter must everywhere. His St John Passion BWV 245, however, which is preserved in various settings, none of which can be called the authentic version or ‘definitive edition’, still stands in the shadow of the more opulent and vaster sister piece. Whereas it is precisely the St John Passion that is the more compact, more laconic, and in terms of harmony and aria-composition more advanced opus. Robert Schumann had already perceived this in a time when the public was becoming more intensely preoccupied with baroque masters: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s performance of the Matthew Passion in 1829 had initiated this.

Rarely is its breathtaking boldness presented to our ears with such immediacy as now with this English guest performance: In the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, as part of a cooperation between the concert venue and the Verein Frankfurter Bachkonzerte, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the choir Polyphony, which was founded in 1986, under the overall direction of Stephen Layton, took to the stage. Already the opening chorus of the St John Passion, 'Herr unser Herrscher’, made one rub one’s eyes in amazement, wondering how a choir consisting of only twenty-six singers could conjure up such power of sound -  without the slightest hint of vocal strain, but masterfully confident, in a balanced, wonderfully homogeneous, and with decidedly refined vocal mastery. The entire performance was underpinned by a remarkable transparency, supported by the slender playing of the orchestra on period instruments, in accordance with the form of historical performance practice.

A superior, well-matched ensemble of soloists acted almost as if the spectator was attending a court hearing, where there was as much quarrelling, polemicising as there was moralising: Ian Bostridge sang the role of the reporting evangelist with many nuances. His extremely flexible and sharply contrastive voice, underlined the breadth of the psychological span between warm words and icy hatred – just as in real life. The others fitted into the concept almost seamlessly: Neil Davies sang the words of Jesus with such balanced and calm superiority that the perplexity of Pontius Pilate became almost palpable. The voices of the aria soloists Julia Doyle (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), and Roderick Williams (baritone) were very well-rounded and well-tempered. Merely the rather animated interpretation of tenor Stuart Jackson disclosed slightly too much opera vicinity.

©Alexander Gebhard (English Translation)

Original German text by Harald Budweg