St John Passion: devotion and drama from Mark Padmore and the OAE

J.S. Bach’s two settings of the Passion of Christ are soaring manifestations of early modern Lutheran devotion, profound meditations on suffering (from the Latin verb, patior, meaning ‘to suffer, bear and endure’).  In 1724, the year in which the St John Passion was first heard in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche, two Passion meditations were published in the city, designed to guide believers in their reflections on the meaning of the Passion, and other material such as sermons, hymns, poems and images also served to support devotional practice.  Thus, Bach’s Passions were not only designed to present a historical narrative as related by the Evangelist, but, through their arias, recitatives and chorales, to guide the listener to consider the martyrdom of Jesus Christ as a means to contemplate their own sins and reflect upon both the wrath and love of God.

How to translate this devotional experience into a present-day concert hall?  The tenor Mark Padmore and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been exploring and returning to this question since they first presented the St John Passion together during an Aldeburgh residency in 2005.  And, of course, Padmore, as the Evangelist, has been the articulator of the vision of the Passions held by many other musicians – and, indeed, directors, performing as he has in staged and semi-staged interpretations of the St John Passion by Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell and Peter Sellars.

In his collaborations with the OAE, though, he himself is both Evangelist and director, and during this conductor-less performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the singers and musicians were drawn into a tight-knit musical unit, pulled ‘inside’ the music, as it were.  The Passion unfolded with compelling naturalness and fluency, the instrumentalists seeming to actively, and insightfully, strive to complement and communicate the meaning of the text so finely voiced and shaped by the singers.  Occasionally one sensed a slight ‘tug’ within the ensemble, though the rough edges were rare, but this only heightened the sense of spontaneity, the performance developing ‘in the moment’.  Perhaps organist Steven Devine, cellist Luise Buchberger, leader Margaret Faultless and, of course, Padmore himself, took has a primary role in establishing tempo, mood, emphasis and nuance, but in practice every single player and singer took and relished personal responsibility for the collection expression.  The result was that something of the sacred experience, of the union of priest, liturgy and congregation, was brought into the secular environment and it embraced the whole auditorium.  

Documents show us that Bach was dissatisfied with both the number and quality of the singers and instrumentalists he could call upon in Leipzig, and in a memorandum to the city council in 1730 he argued that he required sixteen rather than twelve singers in each of his primary, secondary and third choirs.  We also know that he requested, in vain, that the St John Passion be performed in St Thomas’s Church rather than St Nikolai on the grounds that he needed additional room for the choir.  On this occasion we had a twelve-strong vocal ensemble, and if their fervent cries to their Lord, “Herr, unser Herrscher” didn’t have quite the punch needed to fully surmount the opening instrumental hand-wringing, with its restless string undulations and writhing woodwind suspensions, then in the chorales, the fact that one could hear the individual voices created an intimacy which in turn made the crowd’s expressions of both hatred and love intensely ‘real’ and powerfully, sometimes painfully, ‘human’.

I found myself ruminating, as Padmore literally ‘leaned’ into the music, physically inspiring the ensemble, whether it is the chorales, rather than the arias and recitatives, that might ‘benefit’ from the cohesive nuance of a conductor’s crafting.  But, there was a directness and honesty about the singing here that was truly affecting.  The unexpected harmonies of ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ captured the shock of those who ask who has struck Jesus during the High Priest Caiaphas’ interrogation.  And, framed as it was by strikingly nimble choral interjections – as the Jews demanded that Christ, who has transgressed in making himself God’s son, be crucified, and warned the hesitant Pilate that, should he fail to uphold their law, he risked making himself an enemy of Caesar – ‘Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, muß uns die Freiheit kommen’ really was the spiritual essence of the Passion, as the voices of Christ’s devotees transcended those of his destroyers.

If this was, then, a leaner Passion than some, it was also incredibly direct and engaging, not least because of the urgency, even ruggedness at times, of Padmore’s Evangelist – a real human figure whose storytelling was more drama than narrative, and who was at times disturbed and wrought by his personal grief, and guilt, at the loss of his friend.  Every word counted and was communicated with unwavering conviction.  Peter’s denial of Christ swelled from numbed dismay – a fragile head voice described Peter’s exit, “ging hinaus” – to tortured weeping, the melisma, “weinete bitterlich”, seeming to wring itself through agonies of despair.  There was a terrible undeniability about Pilates’ indication of how Jesus would die (“da er deutete, weiches Todes er sterben würde”).  And, there was fire and fury in the recognition of the injustice of Christ’s scourging – “Barabas aber war ein Mörder.  Da najm Pilatus Jesum und geißelte ihn” – which, like the stern, unflinching gaze that accompanied the Evangelist’s account of Jesus’s silence before Pilate’s questioning – seemed to condemn us all.

Raoul Steffani’s Christus was a portrait of dignified forbearance and spiritual strength.  His baritone is quite light, and occasionally it felt a bit under-projected in the lower registers, but it’s a beautiful voice and Steffani heightened the text sensitively – “Wer aus der Wahrheit ist, der höret meine Stimme” (Whoever is of the truth hears my voice); “aber is mein Reich nicht von dannen” (my Kingdom is not from here).  Moreover, especially in the arioso which follows Christ’s scourging, Steffani used vocal colour with tenderness; this number is often sung by Pilate, but here Jesus seemed almost to refer to himself in the third person, rising above his physical suffering. 

After the first chorale, Steffani crossed the stage to seat himself beside the instrumentalists, and later, as he and Jonathan Brown’s Pilate faced each other from opposing sides their exchanges had an almost disturbing intensity.  This Pilate’s inner conflicts were powerfully conveyed, our empathy deepened by Brown’s dutiful fulfilment – his dark bass steady and true – of his role as commander of the people.  His agile urging of the people to hurry to Golgotha to await their salvation, in the bass aria, “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen”, was further vitalised by the incisive choral questions, “Wohin?”, the rhythms of which were brilliantly taut and brisk.  Laurence Kilsby sang his three tenor arias from memory and with enormous composure, making much of the text.  The striking opening appeal, “Consider”, and extended vocal phrases of ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ were executed with masterful control of breath and tone, and Kilsby’s fine structuring of the whole was complemented by shapely violin playing from Margaret Faultless and Rodolfo Richter.  

Mary Bevan’s shining soprano imbued ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ with the joy and optimism of the true believer, while the tone and weight of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herz’ were wonderfully controlled.  Bevan’s poise, as she moved from introspection to declaration, in the da capo repeat – which was poignantly complemented by the two flutes (Lisa Beznosiuk and Sophia Aretz) – left us in no doubt of the urgent need to reiterate the dreadful truth, “Dein Jesus is tot!”  ‘Won den Stricken meiner Sünden”, though sung with a sweet serenity that was nicely set against the nasality of the bassoon (Gyorgyi Farkas) and two oboes (Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys), seemed to lie a little low for mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy.  ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ was a stirring climax, though, taken quite slowly, creating a rapt intensity which was deepened by Richard Tunnicliffe’s lyrical viola da gamba obbligato.  The intimate size of the forces enhanced the character-definition of the smaller roles performed by Daisy Walford (Maid), Tom Robson (Servant) and Philip Tebb (Peter).

In Bach’s Nikolaikirche in 1724, the finale chorale ‘Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein’, was not followed by applause.  It was the practice for the Vesper’s service to conclude with a late sixteenth-century motet, Handl’s Ecce quomodo moritur Justus, a short reading from the Old Testament and a congregational hymn, ‘Nun danket alle Gott’.  In this way, the congregation was guided back to the liturgy and reminded of Martin Luther’s statement that the Passion’s meditation on Christ’s suffering ‘changes man’s being and, almost like baptism, gives him a new birth’.  Here, the homophonic consonance of Handl’s motet reminded us of the essence of the Passion narrative of salvation but also, and with painful poignancy at this present time, of its purpose – to make us reflect on the sinfulness in our own world and our everyday lives:

Behold how the righteous dies and no one takes notice.
The righteous are taken away and no one takes notice.
The righteous has been taken away from present iniquities,
And his memory shall be in peace.
His place is in peace and he dwells in Zion.
And his memory shall be in peace.

Claire Seymour

J.S. Bach – St John Passion; Handl (Gallus): Ecce quomodo moritur Justus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Padmore (director, Evangelist), Mary Bevan (soprano arias), Daisy Walford (soprano, Maid), Paula Murrihy (mezzo-soprano arias), Laurence Kilsby (tenor arias), Tom Robson (tenor, Servant), Raoul Steffani (bass, Christus), Philip Tebb (bass, Peter)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London; Saturday 26th March 2022.