After the reverential intimacy of Johann Sebastiani’s St Matthew Passion at Wigmore Hall, on Good Friday evening J.S. Bach’s St John Passion – performed at the Barbican Hall by the Britten Sinfonia, six young soloists and the Choir of Merton College, Oxford – restored an immediacy to the Passion story which was simultaneously human in its visceral impact and divine in its universal resonance. I was surprised, though, to find that it was not so much the ‘drama’ of the Passion which seemed so striking on this occasion, but the way Bach, in contrast to Sebastiani’s paring back to the essence, finds ways to illuminate the text with such vivid and varied musical means, pushing the narrative itself to the centre-stage.
This foregrounding of the narrative, and its compelling urgency, was in no small part the result of an astonishingly discerning performance by tenor Gwilym Bowen as the Evangelist. It wasn’t so much a performance which grabbed one’s attention from the first, rather one which accrued persuasive integrity as it unfolded, so that I found myself feeling as if Bowen was recounting his story directly to me, and me alone, even as I sat far away, in the Barbican stalls, amid a crowd of attentive listeners.
Though he held a score in his hands, I’m pretty sure Bowen didn’t so much as glance down at it even once. Instead, with calm composure, he held the audience in his direct gaze and ‘narrated’ without undue mannerism or ‘theatre’ but with astonishing, magnetic musicality. His unaffected delivery was anything but unaffecting; even the most perfunctory phrases, “Jesus answered” or “Pilate saith unto them”, were shaped with consideration, care and eloquence. And, it made Bowen’s gradual introduction of increased heightening and colour so powerful. There was a surprising, unanticipated flash of anger when the Jews “cried out” against Pilates’ wish to release Jesus; and, when the Evangelist told us that Jesus had borne his cross to Golgotha there could be no doubting the terrible import for mankind.
The mahogany darkness of Michael Mofidian’s bass ensured that this Christ had an implacable presence, his words imbued with conviction and truth. Jesus’s responses to the high priest’s questioning had a tremendous authority, underpinned by the assertive weight of Pawel Siwczak’s organ, and this assurance subsequently served to make the fading resignation of Jesus’s last words, “Es ist vollbrachet”, distressingly vulnerable.
If Bowen and Mofidian were so brilliantly impressive, then there were other elements of the performance that I found less successful. This was Kathy Shave’s final performance as leader and director of the Britten Sinfonia, and she was characteristically committed and inspiring as she guided the musicians and singers. But, it was a real challenge for Shave to bring the Merton singers and the Sinfonia players together a form a consistently cohesive expressive voice. Benjamin Nicholas had evidently drilled his young singers effectively, and they sang with discipline and attention to detail, but I found myself wondering just how much rehearsal time choir and orchestra had shared.
Sometimes the choric interjections lacked a dramatic punch – the heated appeal for Barabbas to be released, and the vicious yell “Crucify him”, were far too civil for a baying mob – though the counterpoint was always crisp. But, the absence of a conductor’s guiding, shaping hand was most noticeable in the chorales – always, for me, the heart of the Passion – where the rehearsed expressive gestures did not have the spontaneity that should convince one of the veracity of the emotion as it is experienced in real time, as the narrative unfolds. Even that urgent opening choral cry, requesting of God that the Passion might confirm that his true Son “has conquered death and tribulation”, didn’t strike me with the potent immediacy that its almost desperate launch above the churning, rolling string lines customarily inspires. Also, I found myself wanting more ‘darkness’ at times – more weight from the male voices in the choir, more strength from the orchestral basses (there were just two celli, Richard Tunnicliffe and Caroline Dearnley, alongside bassist Stephen Williams).
Both mezzo soprano Anita Monserrat and soprano Rachel Redmond took a little while to get into their stride, seeming more comfortable in their Part Two arias – though Redmond did conjure a lovely ‘airborne’ lightness in ‘Ich folge die’, complementing the sweetness of the two flutes and confirming the certainty and joy bestowed by faith. ‘Es ist vollbrachet’ was tastefully sung by Monserrat but didn’t, for me at least, offer a truly consoling embrace.
Baritone Malachy Frame was terrifically ‘human’ as Pilate, his exchanges with Mofidian bringing a dramatic tension and expressive intensity to Part One that had formerly been missing. And, Frame’s aria with the Chorus, in which he begs the crucified Christ to confirm that by his death the world is redeemed, was a highpoint, initiating a searing intensity which lifted the closing movements of the Passion to an emotive peak before Bowen’s final, tender recitative and the unaccompanied choir’s becalmed recognition of the salvation bestowed by Christ’s sacrifice brought all to rest.
VOCES8 have been celebrating Easter with another Live From London festival – one which marks the release of two new discs, Barnaby Smith’s BACH and Apollo5’s Invocations, and includes a rebroadcast of the group’s performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Academy of Ancient Music in 2021. And, on Good Friday, the vocal ensemble released a previously unseen recording of a performance of the St John Passion which took place last Easter with the English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall.
The opening of this St John Passion seemed to churn and writhe more slowly, Smith intensely squeezing out the ‘tubes’ of colour and timbre, the nasality of the oboes and bassoons mingling disturbingly with the driving bass repetitions. The pace gave opportunity to really appreciate the harmonic tensions that Bach creates: they are an almost torturous complement, at times, to the strings’ coiling motifs.
And, the smaller vocal forces at Cadogan Hall seemed to lead to greater integration of voices and instruments. Throughout, Smith’s embrace of the whole was consummate: rapid choral interjection were alert and vigorous; the chorales were flowing and lovingly shaped – the phrase endings, and enjambments, especially, had such care and nuance, and those subtle harmonies really ‘meant’ something. This was so noticeable, for example, in the unaccompanied verse of ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ where one could so clearly hear the movement of the inner voices; and, ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’, which opens Part Two, where the inevitability of Jesus’s fate was underscored by Smith’s pushing forwards as Jesus was derided, spat upon and mocked, “verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit”, and then the pointed, almost ironic drawing out of final phrase, “wie denn die Schrift saget” (as it is written in the Scriptures).
James Way was not as off-score as Gwilym Bowen but he was a wonderfully articulate Evangelist – he drew attention to the process of story-telling more than Bowen, so that from the first there was a sense of ‘performance’ rather than a foregrounding of the narrative itself. His delivery of the recitative was full of expressive subtlety and his bright-toned lyric tenor had the power to project easily and a lovely freedom at the top. Way took trouble over each and every word, and this conveyed a sense of the Evangelist’s personal emotions in response to the story that he is telling. When the high priest counsels the Jews that “it was expedient that one man should die for the people”, the deepening of colour and slight pause – “daß ein Mensch würde umbracht für das Volk” – and then the quickening and lightening as the phrase was deftly brought to a close, captured both the priest’s character and the Evangelist’s own feelings. The chromatic squirming of the voice and descending cello conveyed every ounce of the misery embodied in Peter’s bitter weeping, while Pilate’s concerns were evident in the delicate shaping of Way’s high phrase, “Von dem an trachtete Pilatus, wie er ihn losließe” (And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him).
As Jesus, Jonathan Pacey’s bass had a slightly grainy quality which he put to good effect, quite defiant when responding to the high priest – there was fierceness in his question, “Was fragest du mich darum?” (“Why askest thou me?”) – and elsewhere angrily dismissive too: “Siehe, dieselbigen wissen, was ich gesaget habe” (Behold, they know what I said). Pacey’s exchanges with Christopher Moore’s Pilate were taut and tense and Jesus’s assertive declaration, “My kingdom is not of this world”, clearly troubled Pilate. Pacey also took the bass aria, ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtndden Seelen’ (Haste, ye deeply wounded spirits), and negotiated the long elaborate lines with power and clarity as Smith whipped up the ECO strings in tight counterpoint, and coaxed sharply focused choral interjections. Throughout Smith judged the pace effectively, pushing forward but knowing when to allow spaciousness: so the fury of the crowd’s baying for Barabbas’ release was followed by the deep expressive stillness of Moore’s arioso, ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ (Consider, O my soul), in which the lute, organ and two solo violins added much to the profundity.
Katie Jeffries-Harris communicated the pain felt by the believer who is freed from the “bondage of transgression” by Saviour’s “grievous wound” in the first alto aria, the colour and timbre of her voice nicely set against the reedy woodwind accompaniment. ‘Es ist Vollbracht!’ began slowly and with expressive weightiness – some strong da gamba playing here, the falling phrases extending the vulnerability of Christ’s words – but there was a gradual increase in momentum, which burst forth in the second part of the aria where Jeffries-Harris’ rich tone made the runs ripe and characterful.
Jeremy Budd was an agile and expressive tenor soloist in ‘Ach, mein Sinn’, communicating the restlessness of the aria; and he shaped the phrases of ‘Erwäge’ beautifully too, easeful at the top. The tenor arioso, ‘Mein Herz’, was affecting, Budd’s head voice in the closing phrase, “was willst du deines Ortes tun?” (what wilt thou do for they part), soft, sustained and touching.
Hillary Cronin displayed a lovely crispness and shine in ‘Ich folge dir’, her soprano full of hope and belief; the clarity of the ornaments and the glints of brightness were thrilling. And, ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’ (Dissolve then, heart) – again, quite a slow tempo was chosen by Smith – balanced the dark grain of the bassoon and the lighter tints of cor anglais and flute brilliantly against the gleam of Cronin’s shining soprano; the motivic interplay was unfussy but telling – this aria seem to me to encapsulate the essence of the whole Passion. And, this essence was crystallised further in the flowing impetus of the chorale, ‘O hilf Christe’, and in the focused fluency of Way’s closing recitative.
Smith’s commitment and energy in the final chorale, ‘Ach Herr’, drew an astonishingly upliftingly response from his collective forces, the bright vigour of the sound confirming that the Lord truly would be glorified throughout eternity.
Rachel Redmond (soprano), Anita Monserrat (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), Gwilym Bowen (tenor, Evangelist), Malachy Frame (baritone, Pilate), Michael Mofidian (bass, Jesus); Choir of Merton College, Oxford; Britten Sinfonia (Kathy Shave, violin/director)
Barbican Hall, London; Friday 7th April 2023.
James Way (Evangelist), Jonathan Pacey (Christus), Hillary Cronin (soprano), Katie Jeffries-Harris (alto), Jeremy Budd (tenor) VOCES8 and VOCES8 Foundation Choir, English Chamber Orchestra, Barnaby Smith (conductor)
Cadogan Hall, London; performed live on 15th April 2022, broadcast on 7th April 2023 and available on demand until 30th April 2023.
ABOVE: Gwilym Bowen (c) Benjamin Ealovega