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

St John Passion in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt - A British-style passion

Frankfurt – They have long since nationally appropriated the Baroque Saxon Georg Friedrich Händel, who worked in England for long stretches. And even concerning historical performance research, the British have established themselves as front-runners.

This is not only confirmed by Sir Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir. The London-based choir Polyphony, the invariably experimental Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, soloists of distinction, such as the oratorio tenor Ian Bostridge, and conductor Stephen Layton, thrillingly shaped JS Bach’s dramatic St John Passion at the Alte Oper: historical performance practice at its finest – of course.

Jesus is put on trial in this passion. Much direct speech and exciting disputes between those who are responsible for the sentencing and execution of the Son of God, paint a vivid picture of his last hours, narrated by a sympathetic devout soul. Already in the opening chorus the savior is glorified. After an aching melodic lead-in on period instruments, by the velvety silvery sound of the orchestra, London’s Polyphony sings with chesty conviction and a thrilling rhythmic drive.

Unnerving are those brief scenes where the crowds are incited by the chief priests, and which culminate in an eerily shrill ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige’. Artistic feats per se are created by conductor Layton in the compassionate chorales – here no congregational singing, but interpretations close to the word. Of course Ian Bostridge is, yet again, a great evangelist, who reports and declaims in a very exciting way, introducing a beautiful, pure tenor sound that almost imperceptibly alternates between chest and head voice.

A Jesus without an aural halo: bass-baritone Neal Davies relies on natural vocal gifts. In Bach’s pearl aria ‘Zerfließe mein Herze’, soprano Julia Doyle attests to heartrending compassion with a voice as clear as a bell. Similarly, Stuart Jackson’s poignant ‘Ach mein Sinn’, with a very slender tenor voice. Convincing as deliberative Roman governor Pilate: the expressive baritone Roderick Williams. ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ As the voice of pain and hope, countertenor Iestyn Davies relies on the soulful quality of his sound. The final chorale, too, underlines certainty of faith: with ‘Ich will dich preisen ewiglich’ ends a spectacular Bach Passion performed by a ‘historically’ briefed Britons.

©Alexander Gebhard (English Translation)

Original German text by Klaus Ackermann