Monday 17 March 2008

Review of St. John Passion

Friday's performance of Bach's Johannes Passion at the Barbican was part of the Homeward Bound series, so that though the passion was conducted by Stephen Layton, tenor Ian Bostridge got top billing. Bostridge sang both the Evangelist and the tenor solos, James Rutherford sang Christus with Carolyn Sampson, Michael Chance and Roderick Williams doing the remaining solos. Layton conducted his own choir, Polyphony, and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Though played on period instruments, the performance fielded far more performances than ever Bach might have been able to; some 28 choristers and a similar number of instrumentalists.

The performance's profoundly serious intentions were signalled from the start by the fact that the passion was being played without an interval and that audience was asked not to applaud until the end. Layton placed significant pauses after each chorale and a long pause at the point where Christ dies. There was also a long pause at the end before the audience could applaud.

Now, unlike Handel's oratorios, Bach's passions are religious works, written for a particular church service. But in giving them in a concert hall, performers surely have to accept that the audience members are there for a musical experience, each brings to the performance a differing set of religious (or non religious) views. Layton's pauses and reverence for the work seemed to be verging on forcing us to consider the concert as a religious experience. In essence, Layton seemed to be saying to us that the best and only way to appreciate the passion was as a religious work. But it is part of Bach's genius that his music transcends this. Layton was apparently supported by Bostridge who, when not singing, mostly seemed to have his eyes closed.

BOstridge was placed at the front, next to Layton, James Rutherford as Christus sat on a high platform to one side. The other soloists sat out of the audience's view and performed their arias on a platform in the centre of the orchestra. In many ways a sensible idea, but it did necessitate some distracting coming and going.

Both Layton and Bostridge are, by temperament, interventionist, so that though the music making was of a very high order, it had a very distinctive character. This was apparent form the opening bars, with Polyphony articulating the words superbly, pointing the music to a degree that was almost mannered with the Academy of Ancient Music playing in a similar manner. In fact this left the AAM sounding uncharacteristically muddy and the choir, though vivid and wonderfully committed, sounded over loud.

This such numbers there was inevitably no attempt to recreate a Lutheran style performance, I did find it worrying that when the choir were singing it was difficult to hear the woodwind.

I have nothing but praise for the choral singers who articulated all of Layton's wishes often at very brisk speeds. But the overall effect was extremely mannered, choruses and turbae were highly articulated, often fast and seemed to be either loud or very soft.

Bostridge seemed to worry at every single word or phrase. The result was often highly dramatic, but by the time we reached the tearing of the veil of the temple, Bach's dramatic writing went for little, as Bostridge's delivery had been over-wrought for most of the evening. Perhaps this style of Evangelist will appeal to some people but for me less is more in this role. Bostridge's delivery of the tenor arias was similarly dramatic, but these would have told more if set off against a less over-wrought Evangelist.

Into this highly charged atmosphere, Carolyn Sampson appeared like a wonderfully cool breeze. Her tone pure and limpid, her technical control superb, you only regretted that she was singing just 2 arias. It is here that you realise having the soloists involved in the choral numbers makes sense as otherwise the soprano and alto are grossly under used.

Sampson's dress was also something of a delight; black, but slit to the thigh, naked flesh covered with an over dress of black voile.

On the other hand Michael Chance, who was standing in for Iestyn Davies, seemed to push the performance closer to the religiose, giving his 2 arias almost with his eyes closed. Chance's voice is not as supple as it once was, but his musicianship is very fine.

Roderick Williams, singing Pilate and the bass arias, performed like Sampson, with aplomb, cool control and enviable technical ability. Williams has a lovely warm voice and brought drama to the role of Pilate without indulging in the over-dramatic interventionist approach.

The Academy of Ancient Music contributed some fine solo playing in the arias. Their overall sound, vivid and highly articulated, matched Layton's vision for the choir.

Overall this was an enthralling and engrossing performance, lasting just 2 hours. The style might not have been ideal for me but the standard of musicianship was very high. And it made me think about what I really want out of a performance of Bach's Johannes Passion


  1. Anonymous8:26 pm

    The orchestra was the AAM, not The OAE

  2. Quite so. Post now corrected


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