Butt and BBC NOW Restore Faith in ‘Full-Strength’ Bach St John Passion

15/04/2017

Bach, St John Passion: Soloists, BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / John Butt (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.4.2017. (PCG) 

Gwilym Bowen (tenor) – Evangelist
David Soar (bass) – Christ
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
William Towers (counter-tenor)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass) – Pilate
Catriona Holsgrove (soprano) – Maid
Rhys Batt (tenor) – Servant
Nicholas Perfect (bass) – Peter

Bach’s ‘Passion according of Saint John’ (as the Eulenberg miniature score quaintly dubs it) has always tended to be overshadowed by the same composer’s later St Matthew Passion. It is certainly on a smaller scale than its big brother, both in duration (with fewer meditative arias) and in the lack of the elaborate apparatus of double choir and orchestra found in the composer’s subsequent conception; but conversely its greater dramatic concision has led some commentators to rate it even higher than its more imposing companion. Bach himself clearly had a soft spot for the work, revising it a year after its 1724 première (the Eulenberg score mistakenly states 1723) by the addition or replacement of five substantially expanded movements, although these in their turn were later either abandoned or adapted for use elsewhere. He later in the 1730s began to rework the score more thoroughly, but this task was left incomplete and, for a final performance a year before his death, he reverted to the original version although with considerably expanded forces including a double bassoon. That instrument was not included in this performance, but otherwise the orchestra at least was in line with what appear to have been Bach’s final intentions. Similarly, the ‘liuto’ part in the bass arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’, was here taken over by the chamber organ (one cannot imagine in any event that on purely practical grounds a lute could have made its effect in this hall without amplification).

John Butt, the conductor here, is known for his espousal of the thesis that Bach’s choral works were largely written for single voices; and it is indeed clear that the first performance of the St John Passion were given with limited forces when it was transferred from St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig to the more restricted area available in St Nicholas’s. But here we had the full strength of the BBC National Chorus of Wales (over one hundred singers listed in the programme) which was certainly greater than any number of performers Bach could ever have expected in Leipzig. Similarly, although the numbers of instrumentalists on the stage were well below the normal romantic strength of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, this was nevertheless ‘big-band Bach’ with a vengeance. As such it made a startling contrast to the same conductor’s acclaimed recording of the St John Passion on Linn Records issued four years ago. But it is difficult to conceive, in a hall like this without the benefit of church or cathedral acoustics, that a performance with small numbers could have made much communication beyond the front rows of the stalls; and the flowing and considered speeds at which the music was delivered quite lifted the overall effect from any element of ponderousness or undue weight. Indeed the delivery of the opening ‘Herr!’ from the chorus had a sense of impact and excitement that it would be hard to imagine from any body of chamber singers.

Internal balances, so difficult to achieve in baroque music with or without the employment of period instruments, were sometimes problematical. The use of three soloists from the choir to take on the roles of Peter, the Maid and the Servant in Part One introduced a disconcerting shift of perspective to listeners in the hall (although those hearing the live radio broadcast will have been unaware of this). The two oboe obbligati in ‘Von den Strikken’ threatened in places to overwhelm the counter-tenor voice of William Towers (Butt had used a female contralto in his Linn recording), although he was perfectly audible elsewhere. On the other hand, the two violin soloists (taking the parts originally written for viola d’amore by Bach) were insufficiently clearly defined when set against the tenor solo of Nick Pritchard in the extended aria ‘Erwäge, erwäge’. Soprano Elizabeth Watts fared better and in ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ her controlled use of vibrato to colour her crescendo was thrilling, if perhaps not totally authentic. Ashley Riches was also excellent, and the fact that he was also give Pilate’s lines to sing (avoiding any shifts in perspective) meant that in the event he had the lion’s share of the bass music to deliver. His rendition of the archetypical line ‘Was ist Wahrheit?’ (What is Truth?) had a slight catch in the voice which emphasised the drama of the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus which was taking place here.

Drama too was the keynote in Gwilym Bowen’s heady performance as the Evangelist, floating high phrases without any sense of strain and with a marvellous sense of line. The manner in which he, Butt and the chorus passed the narrative to and fro was gripping in the extreme. Where in the St Matthew Passion the voice of Christ, surrounded by its halo of strings, is set somewhat apart from the whole, in the St John setting much more emphasis is laid on the humanity of the encounters between Christ and his persecutors, and David Soar achieved wonders in the role by sheer vocal delivery alone. The many chorales which punctuate the score were briskly delivered by Butt, with the most minimal of pauses between lines; and this too served to preserve the onward impetus of the music. Butt’s harpsichord continuo, with many exquisite ornamentations and flourishes, was marvellously integrated into the whole.

It was a pity that the audience was not larger (there were substantial areas of empty seating in parts of the hall) but those who were there were rightly in ecstasies with what they heard. The programme supplied by the BBC was excellent, with full texts and translations into both English and Welsh as well as an excellent three-page introduction to the work by Lindsay Kemp. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 but will continue to be available on the BBC iPlayer for a further thirty days. Listeners who do not insist on austerity in the name of ‘authenticity’ will find it thoroughly enjoyable.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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