An Account of the St John Passion that Brought Home the True Meaning of Easter


Bach: Soloists, Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Stephen Layton (Conductor), St John’s Smith Square, London, 14.4.2017.  (RB)

Bach – St John Passion

Nick Pritchard (Evangelist)
Neal Davies (Christus)
Julia Doyle (soprano)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Gwilym Bowen (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass);

Bach’s St John Passion has been the subject of intense debate in the US in recent years because of what some perceive as anti-Semitic references within the work.  This has as much to do with the original source material as the libretto.  St John’s Gospel was written at a time when the nascent Christian Church was breaking away from its Jewish roots and there are many references to Jesus describing his opponents as ‘the Jews’.  Bach’s libretto was an adaptation of that by B H Brockes and there is clear evidence that the composer removed anti-Semitic references within the text although some of the language from the original Gospel remains.  I have some sympathy with the view that the references to ‘Jews’ in the text should be changed to ‘people’.  Bach’s message is after all a universal one and in today’s world where we still read about torture, brutalisation and murder this intensely moving story of the crucifixion of Jesus still has the power to shock and disturb us.  The complicity of the religious authorities in these events, the whipping up of the crowds, the callous acquiescence and brutality of the civil authorities and the scapegoating of outsiders are all features of today’s world.

Given the intensely spiritual nature of this work, St John’s Smith Square is the perfect venue and it is particularly apt to listen to the Passion story on Good Friday.  Stephen Layton approached the performance with reverence, playing through the work without a break for applause and allowing the audience a few moments for silence and reflection after Jesus gave up the ghost.  There was scrupulous attention to detail throughout and the events described in the Gospel were depicted in vivid terms.  The scenes with Pontius Pilate at the start of Part II in particular had enormous dramatic power.

Bach’s monumental choruses and chorales received a first-rate performance here.  The OAE’s strings played the figurations of the opening chorus with enormous clarity which allowed Layton to highlight Bach’s extraordinary dissonances.  Polyphony produced a powerful, focused sound and there was scrupulous attention to phrasing and punctuation.  The choruses at the start of Part II radiated threat and menace and Polyphony used Bach’s chromatic harmonies marvellously to highlight the baying nature of Jesus’ accusers.  Layton created space for spiritual reflection in the final chorus as Polyphony pondered on the meaning and mystery of Jesus’ death.  The rich and inventive harmonic progressions in Bach’s chorales were delineated beautifully and there was some gorgeous a capella singing in, ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’.  I was very impressed with the clarity which Layton brought to Bach’s overlapping and complex textures.  In ‘Mein teuer Heiland’ the bass and gamba solos had their own independent lyrical flow but meshed beautifully together and with the hushed chorale in the background.

Nick Pritchard was pitch perfect as the Evangelist and he proved a highly expressive narrator.  He vied well with the Chorus at the start of Part II injecting pace into the dramatic narrative and brought a plangent pity to the scourging scene.  Neal Davies gave an accomplished performance as Christ although I thought there was scope for him to bring greater tonal lustre to Bach’s narrative.

The soloists for the most part gave sterling performances of Bach’s sublime arias and they were ably supported by the OAE.  Iestyn Davies injected a sense of loss and pain into ‘Von den Stricken’ and powerful dramatic inflections towards the end of the aria heightened these feelings.  Davies’ performance of ‘Es ist vollbracht’ with its slow sustained lines was one of the highlights of the concert not only for the searing beauty of Davies’ singing but also for Jonathan Rees’ plaintive affecting gamba playing.  The other highlight was Julia Doyle’s performance of ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ which was bright and life affirming.  Doyle produced a pure lustrous tone which was absolutely perfect for this aria while the OAE’s flautists wove an enchanting web around her.

Gwilym Bowen brought dramatic force to ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ and an expressive anguish to ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbte Rücken’.  I would have liked a little more vocal projection and crisper diction from Bowen in the first aria but the second was better.  Ashley Riches gave a supremely lyrical and poetic performance of ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ while the OAE’s strings produced a luminous halo of sound around him.  Riches’ handling of Bach’s flowing legato lines in ‘Eilt, Ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ was superb although he seemed less comfortable at the bottom of the vocal register.

In The Waste Land T S Eliot described April as the cruellest month.  This performance by Layton and his band of instrumentalist and singers reminded us why this is the case and brought home the true meaning of Easter.

Robert Beattie

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