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

Jesus as the ruler of his own fate

Stephen Layton with a bravura performance of Bach's St John Passion at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. With Ian Bostridge as the evangelist.

The vocal sound is characterized by a ‘slim wealth’, hence not by monumental force. Twenty-six singers are grouped on the choir stage: Thus, the British conductor Stephen Layton is not persuaded by the now ever more popular one-to-a-part performance, which goes back to the hypothesis of the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin, according to which Bach is said to have worked with a choir consisting of not more than four vocal soloists as well as an equal number of ripienists, or filling voices.

However, the fact that this is not a must is underlined by the bravura style of Layton's performance of Bach's St John Passion BWV 245 with the London-based chamber choir Polyphony, which he founded thirty years ago, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt; apart from two vocal soloists, the hand-picked line-up is that of his 2013 recording.

Ian Bostridge as the evangelist – a first-class choice for this central figure, the focal point of such a performance. His expressive means are influenced by his Lieder interpretations; in an ascetic way he develops a modest yet concise stature at every single moment.

Beyond the extreme

The bass Neal Davies presents Jesus not as a sufferer, but rather as ruler of his own fate, and thus, precisely in the spirit of this passion; a voice with a powerful core. The coutertenor part, sung by Iestyn Davies, wonderfully free-flowing; soprano Julia Doyle recites with operatic emphasis. Dynamically restrained, and thus all the more effective, is the tenor voice of Stuart Jackson, which subliminally includes an almost comically playful vein. Baritone Roderick Williams marks a strong position as a vocally flexible, but firm, and spatially dominating, Pilate.

Stephen Layton is not concerned with exploring the extremes, the tempos remain steady; the instrument of choice for the continuo part is the box organ, with the harpsichord left on the sidelines. Brisk and full of life are the successful ‘turba’ choir interjections, where the voice of the people is articulated. Layton structures with sharp precision, the dramatic arc is taut. With a keen sense for dynamic subtleties, he was able to spur on the period instrument specialists from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to a zestful performance. A performance of theatrical density.

©Alexander Gebhard (English Translation)

Original German text by Stefan Michalzik