Bach: St John Passion (CD Review -, 2013)

Andrew Stewart listens to Stephen Layton and Polyphony's recording of Bach's St John Passion and finds a true believer's response to the music and story


There are times when performers are collectively caught by great music like a deer in headlights. Stephen Layton and his colleagues soar high above the trap set for over-reverent interpreters, those who dwell too deeply on what others have done before them. Their approach to Bach’s St John Passion is guided by the twin virtues of courage and commitment, sweeping reticence aside in pursuit of dramatic truths and eternal metaphors at the work’s heart. Listen to the opening chorus and you’ll hear a group of musicians playing and singing as if their lives depended on it.

The blood-lust of Polyphony’s cries of ‘Kreuzige’ (‘Crucify’) and chilling delivery of ‘Lasset uns nicht zerteilen (‘Let us not cast lots for it’) are complemented by their compassionate involvement with the horror of Christ’s death.

Here the choir ratchets up the vituperative tension, mocking the captive ‘King of the Jews’.

And out of their hatred comes only hatred, until Bach confronts the dark side of human nature with a simple hymn, ‘In meines Herzens Grunde’ (‘In the inmost reaches of my heart’), reinforced with positive affection by conductor, choir and orchestra.

Layton’s vision of the first of Bach’s Passions, refined and matured in performance over two decades, arises from the spirit of Christian community and radiates out to illuminate humanity’s interdependence. Some will argue that he is too fussy about details of articulation, diction and phrasing. It’s a charge that would stick only if his reading lacked guts, a genuine connection with the visceral energy of Bach’s score and, by extension, with the Passion story’s imagery of ill-will, suffering, brutality and despair. What I hear is a true believer’s deeply embodied response to the narrative of Jesus’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion and its dramatic re-presentation through the voices and instruments of others.

There once was a fashion, which I may have followed, for criticising Ian Bostridge’s ‘Berlitz German’. In fact the tenor, warmer in tone than in his precocious youth, commands attention through vivid use of Bach’s mother-tongue, the weighting of individual words, their speed of delivery and emotional colouring. This is not about ‘listen to me and my wonderful voice’. Bostridge freely breaks the chains ofbel canto to sear the Evangelist’s words with edgy insistence and shocking urgency. Here’s how he reports the rending of the temple’s veil at Christ’s death.

There are fine things, too, from Iestyn Davies, whose ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ (‘It is finished!’) exposes the dread consequences of resentment of the Other, and again in the near-mystical beauty of Carolyn Sampson’s ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ (‘Dissolve my heart’)

In a performance so alive to the moment, it’s no surprise that reflection is overshadowed by drama. Nicholas Mulroy and Roderick Williams attempt to redress the balance but sound more meek than meditative in their solos. And yet their work fits into the greater scheme of an interpretation propelled by an unshakeable determination to warn against base instinct and an equal desire to draw its audience close together.

Andrew Stewart 


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