Tuesday 2 April 2013

St John’s Passion: Bach at the Barbican

James Gilchrist
James Ghilchrist
Sat on the Barbican’s sofa-like chairs – can there be a pleasanter way to be reminded of the story of Easter than the Academy of Ancient Music’s rendition of St John Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) on Good Friday (29 March 2013).

The AAM, under the directorship of Richard Egarr is as good an orchestra as any modern ensemble, and when in force, as for the Passion, there is no taint of the fuddy duddy image which can linger around ‘early music’ groups. This is no bunch of self congratulatory musicians, playing metronomically, but rather are a force to be reckoned with. Bach may not have written opera – but in the hands of the AAM this is a close as it gets.

Bach made the most of the sound palette available to him, and the sympathetic design of the Barbican meant that every note could be heard: from the amassed choir and ensemble down to the more intimate solos with wind, or viol and lute, accompaniment. Also, because the AAM has such a large and varied group of musicians to call upon, each solo part had its own set of instruments adding a further layer of colour and expression.

Richard Egarr was determined to achieve his idea of how the Passion should sound, and ruled the chorus and orchestra exactly, sometimes adding to the sound by playing the second harpsichord but mostly making sure that everything worked.

By far the star of the event was James Gilchrist. Every note and syllable of this tenor was crystal clear. But, more than this, his presence was captivating, like any true story teller, driving forwards the plot whilst providing a dramatic foil for the soloists. Moments such as ‘wept bitterly’ became heart wrenching.

Similarly the conversations between Matthew Rose as Christ and Ashley Riches as Pilate were dramatic and tense - Pilate's’ political need in wanting this problem to just go away clearly came across. The other dramatic ‘actors’ came out of the chorus. 

Elizabeth Watts, Sarah Connolly, Andrew Kennedy and Christopher Purves were the emotional heart of the main story. These arias all reflect the suffering of Jesus and his family, friends and followers throughout the Easter story and provide comment on the action. Each soloist brought their text to life and balanced each other, moving though hope then resignation to despair.

Having a short retune part way through rather than an interval was a good choice. It prevented breaking up the flow of the work but gave everyone (including the musicians) a chance to catch their breath. During the retune Reiko Ichise from Fretwork and William Carter joined the others on stage. Bach does not simply let instruments double the voices; each part has its own importance. The viol and lute accompaniment during the solos was a skilful reminder of the emotional range possible of these instruments.

Only two things could have been improved. The first was the awful translation of the libretto. The German was full of strong imagery, blood and suffering, while the programme notes in English were hygienic, and bore little resemblance to the original. This is a story about betrayal, mass hysteria, political fear, religious fear, murder, greed, and grief. It does not need sanitising!

However the AAM clearly put a lot of thought into their programme notes (libretto notwithstanding). Stephen Rose’s background into the St John Passion, and to this the 1724 version of the St John Passion, was a nice touch.

The other, a much more minor point, was that there were some tuning and volume issues amongst the woodwind. This only really became noticeable during the initial alto and later soprano solos, and perhaps it is just something you have to live with when an orchestra contains so many difficult to tune instruments.

I came away humming the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ – I can only imagine that an 18th century congregation used to singing chorales was probably able to join in making their experience of  the Passion a more personal one. But the packed concert hall showed that this performance was appreciated, especially during Easter weekend. Well done all round.

review by Hilary Glover
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