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Reviews

<em>St John Passion</em>, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London
01 Apr 2018

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

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: James Gilchrist

Photo credit: Philip Allen

 

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 Sünder’ (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 ‘Zerfließe, 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 Čičić. 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 Arcayürek, 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 ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’) (Consider how his bloodstained back) Arcayürek’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 Arcayürek, Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 30th March 2018.

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