Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

So demanded the seventh article of the contract which the ‘Honorable and
Most Wise Council’ of Leipzig presented to their new Cantor of the
Thomasschule on 5th May 1723. Johann Sebastian Bach duly placed
his signature after the fourteen articles, avowing to ‘undertake and bind
myself faithfully to observe all of the said requirements, and on pain of
losing my post not to act contrary to them’.

Over the coming decades, plentiful quarrels between employer and employee
ensued, over almost every aspect of the Cantor’s role – teaching,
administration, the lack of musical talent among his pupils, Bach’s freedom
of movement and, inevitably, money. However, while music of an ‘operatic’
nature may have been denigrated by the pious city council, one must presume
that music of a ‘dramatic’ nature was acceptable, for towards the end of
1723 Bach began composing his St John Passion. Intended for
performance at Good Friday Vespers in the St Thomas Church on 7 th April 1724, this sacred drama was presumably designed to
impress his new employers and congregation. Moreover, the Evangelist’s
narration of the story of Christ’s crucifixion, punctuated by vivid choral
interactions, probing, poignant arias and contemplative chorales is
operatic in ‘sweep’, if not in design – though there are many musical
images and devices which would not have been out of place in the Baroque
theatre, tempting several directors since to present staged versions.

Composed for a particular liturgical event, and a specific a place, Bach’s St John Passion received at least three more performances during
the composer’s lifetime – in 1725, the early 1730s and in 1749 – and on
each occasion Bach revised the score, adding, amending and excising
numbers, and altering the instrumentation. A concert performance in the
twenty-first century is unavoidably somewhat removed from the original
context, but this presentation of the 1724 score (which can be
reconstructed from the extant score and parts) at the Barbican Hall by
conductor Riccardo Minasi and the Academy of Music did much to communicate
the almost visceral monumentality of the Passion drama that one imagines
the Leipzig congregation must have experienced four hundred years ago.

It’s hard to think of another tenor who can assume the Evangelist’s
narrative mantle with more naturalness and persuasiveness than James
Gilchrist. Never troubled by the sometimes quite high-lying recitative,
Gilchrist was a compelling story-teller; he has sung the role countless
times and seems to have absorbed every word and note into his heart and
memory, for he barely glanced down at his score and seemed to sustain
eye-contact with every one of the almost capacity audience in the Barbican
Hall. Gilchrist moved effortlessly between expressive registers, singing
with sudden energy and biting intensity when Pilate took Jesus and scourged him; with blazing strength when proclaiming the
inscription written by Pilate on Jesus’ cross, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of
the Jews’; with startling ferocity when, after Jesus’ death, the
curtain in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom as the rattling
tremolando of the orchestral bass instruments conjured the violent shaking
of the earth; and, with almost painful sweetness when Peter, having denied
Christ three times, remembered Jesus’s words and wept bitterly.

The contemplative arias were no less captivating, inspiring engagement and
inward reflection. Interacting tellingly with the continuo bass and oboe in
‘Von den Stricken meiner S¸nder’ (From the bondage of transgression),
Iestyn Davies conveyed sobriety as his countertenor descended easily
through the aria’s low ruminations. The extreme slow tempo of ‘Es ist
vollbracht’ (It is accomplished) exacerbated the pained chromaticism of
this lament: Davies shaped the elongated descents with stunning technical
control and expressiveness, and the vocal line was enhanced by the soft
exquisiteness of Reiko Ichise’s viola da gamba obbligato.

Replacing the indisposed Lydia Teuscher, soprano Mary Bevan gave a graceful
rendition of ‘Ich folger dir’ (I follow thee) while the long flowing lines
of ‘Zerfliefle, mein Herze’ (Dissolve then, heart) were both beautifully
polished and deeply expressive. As Christus, American bass-baritone Cody
Quattlebaum presented a figure of gravitas and sincerity, displaying vocal
sensitivity and nuance in his recitative interjections, and strong
melodiousness in the arioso of ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ (Consider, O my
soul), in which the viola d’amore elaborations were given eloquent
definition by violin section leaders Madeleine Easton and Bojan ?i?i?. This
was the first time I had heard him sing, but I felt at times that
Quattlebaum was holding back – the running lines of ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen
Seelen’ (Haste, ye deeply wounded spirits) flowed lightly but might have
had even more power and presence perhaps – and I look forward to an
opportunity to hear the full capacity of his warm bass of which there were
occasional enticing hints here.

In contrast, Jonathan Stainsby projected Pilatus’ questions and proclamations
with vividness and might from the rear ranks of the AAM Chorus; Philippa
Hyde (Ancilla) and Adrian Horsewood (Petrus) also made strong
contributions. The tenor soloist was Ilker Arcay¸rek, from Turkey, another
singer whom I have not previously encountered. ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ (Ah, my
soul) was attractively dark in colour though it felt a little laboured, but
in ‘Erw‰ge, wie sein blutgef‰rbter R¸cken’) (Consider how his bloodstained
back) Arcay¸rek’s phrasing was fluent and shapely, and the lyricism was
richly communicative.

Historical records show that Bach had a minimum of sixteen singers in his
Thomanchor, and though some period ensembles have adopted a one-to-a-part
approach to the choral numbers, the AAM Chorus comprised twenty-one
personnel on this occasion. There were times, though, when I’d have liked a
few more. One imagines that Bach – who complained when he learned that the
first performance was, at the last minute, to be transferred from St Thomas
Church to the smaller St Nicholas Church, insisting that the council make
additional room in the choir loft for his choir and musicians – intended
the choruses to make a powerful sonorous impact. That’s not to suggest that
the singing of the AAM Chorus was lacking in vigour, presence and drama –
and the chorales swelled with dignity and calm assurance – but the Barbican
Hall is a big space to fill.

The brooding ominousness of the first chorus didn’t have quite enough
palpable punch for this listener. Also, the choral sound was sometimes too
genteel to convey the shocking inhumanity of the crowd mentality, as when
the onlookers fight over who should have the crucified Christ’s clothes in
‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ (Let us not rend it). The more
contemplative choral numbers were skilfully crafted by Minasi, though, and
the final chorus, ‘Ruht wohl, ihr Gebeine’ (Lie in peace, sacred body),
swelled with consoling warmth.

Minasi was an animated presence, crafting elaborate curlicues with his
baton-less hands, swaying with an invigorating lilt, whipping his arms left
to right and pumping his hands up and down with such emphatic dynamism that
at times I feared for his shoulder sockets. The musicians of the AAM
responded with tastefully expressive tone and phrasing, ever alert to the
articulation of the unfolding drama.

I had one small quibble about the proceedings. The stage choreography
sometimes inhibited the dramatic impetus, as when Gilchrist, seated
stage-left at the beginning of each Part, had to walk to the centre to
continue the narrative. Moreover, while it’s a long sing and one would not
necessarily expect the chorus to remain standing throughout, the incessant
ups-and-downs of the AAM Chorus resulted in some frustrating pauses, most
particularly before the chorales which I wished would flow directly from
the Evangelist’s narrative. But, this was a minor dissatisfaction with a
Good Friday Passion which was performed with intelligence, insight and
intensity of feeling in equal measure.

Claire Seymour

J.S. Bach: St John Passion BWV 245 (1724)

Academy of Ancient Music: Riccardo Minasi (conductor)

Evangelist – James Gilchrist, Christus – Cody Quattlebaum, soprano – Mary Bevan, countertenor – Iestyn Davies, tenor – Ilker Arcay¸rek, Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 30th March 2018.

image_description=St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London
product_title=St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: James Gilchrist

Photo credit: Philip Allen