Bach’s St John Passion in Leipzig

Bach, St John Passion (1749 version): Sibylla Rubens (soprano),Marie-Claude Chappuis (contralto), Johannes Chum (Evangelist and tenor arias), Stephan Loges (Christ), Hans-Christoph Begemann (bass arias), Choir of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gotthold Schwarz (conductor). St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, 21.4.2011 (MB)

The Thomanerchor’s Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Passion performances alternate annually between the St John and the St Matthew. This year, for a little variety, Bach’s 1749 (fourth) version of the former was presented. I do not recall hearing it before; there is little, however, about which to become excited, the most noteworthy changes being a matter of alterations to three aria texts. ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ has some changes, arguably reflecting a less Baroque or Pietistic pictorial sensibility; likewise ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’. The text for ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ is entirely replaced, the following words providing the new text:

Mein Jesu, ach! Dein schmerzhaft bitter Leiden

bringt tausend Freuden,

es tilgt der Sünden Not.

Ich sehe zwar mit vielen Schrecken

den heiligen Leib mit Blute decken;

doch muss mir dies auch Lust erwecken,

es macht mich frei von Höll und Tod.

Georg Christoph Biller, the Thomaskantor, had been due to conduct; illness led to his replacement by Gotthold Schwarz. Schwarz’s approach was clearly ‘period’-informed, but not oppressively so, and was capable of variation. For instance, the great opening chorus was taking at a fast-ish though not absurd tempo; more importantly, the choir’s cries of ‘Herr’ pierced to the core against a properly turbulent backdrop as furnished by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. I feared the worst when the ‘B’ section was terminated quite abruptly – always, to be fair, a difficult return to bring off convincingly – but other phrase- and section-endings were rounded off more naturally, for instance Christ’s recitative at the end of no.2. Likewise, chorales sounded unhurried – at least by today’s preposterous standards – and pauses were usually employed at ends of phrases. I was certainly impressed at the way Bach’s myriad of harmonic subtleties shone through – though one might well ask, how could it not? – in a chorale such as ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen…?’ I did wonder, however, at the precedence of words over line in the penultimate line of ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’. Certainly the meaning of ‘verlacht, verhöhnt, und verspielt’ came across vividly, but the effect was arguably disruptive. The climactic chorus, ‘Ruht wohl,’ maintained its noble dignity, even if Schwarz’s imagination was somewhat less all-encompassing than that of a conductor such as Eugen Jochum (still my first choice for a recording).

An undeniable ‘rightness’ to the sound of boys’ voices was illustrated throughout. I do not mean to imply that mixed voices should not sing the work; I am happy to leave such fundamentalism to the ‘authenticke’ brigade, though commercial self-interest tends to render its practitioners oddly reluctant to employ what should surely be the ‘historically informed’ voices. Nevertheless, it is something very special to hear Bach’s own choir and – more or less – orchestra in his own church on Maundy Thursday, not least whilst beholding, as I did, Bach’s own countenance immediately opposite in one of St Thomas’s beautiful stained-glass windows – and that of Mendelssohn a little closer to the organ loft, in which the performances take place. Moreover, it would be ludicrous to claim that women’s voices sound the same as boys’, or indeed that a more mature chorus sounds as fresh as a youthful choir. Different choirs are possessed of different qualities. There was, moreover, no wanting of vigour in the turba choruses, Bach’s searing chromaticism proving as terrifying as anything in Tristan or Parsifal, the bloodlust if anything all the more chilling when expressed by young voices. ‘Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!’ was, I am happy to report, taken at a relatively sedate tempo, allowing the words their full force. Bach’s writing, the Gospel itself, and the choral singing combined to impart an almost overwhelming sense of predestination as the performance progressed.

The question of soloists might be thought vexed, though only really if one adopts a fundamentalist approach: better to have professional soloists drawn from outside the choir than to have boys struggle, though it would be interesting on occasion to hear the soprano and alto arias taken by trebles. (Members of the choir did take smaller parts, such as the Maid and Peter.) Johannes Chum was an excellent Evangelist. Neither words nor music were unduly privileged; instead, one not only noted but also experienced the miracle of Bach’s alchemic combination. Occasional strain with respect to the higher notes in his range was put to expressive use rather than jarring. Rainer Trost was listed in the programme booklet as the soloist for the tenor arias, but they were also sung by Chum. Though I should have been interested to hear the former, Chum proved an able replacement. It was not his fault, for instance, that a warmer, more Romantic string sound was not forthcoming in ‘Ach, mein Sinn’; nor, I am sure, was it the fault of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The same could be said of the somewhat underpowered violin sound in ‘Mein Jesu, ach!’ Some ‘period’ practices die hard, alas. The entire continuo group proved distinguished throughout, however, not least David Petersen’s fruity bassoon.

Stephan Loges was a richly toned, expressive yet dignified Christ. Bach’s writing here lacks the celebrated string halo of Christ’s words in the St Matthew Passion, yet Loges ensured that one never felt the loss. Sibylla Rubens did not have a great deal to do as the soprano soloist. (What a contrast with the St Matthew!) Nevertheless, she proved radiantly beautiful in the pain of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’. Marie-Claude Chappuis was warmly expressive as contralto soloist. ‘Von den Stricken’ was more urgent than reflective, but that was doubtless Schwarz’s decision. Chappuis employed considerable ornamentation upon her da capo. Excellent cello and woodwind playing should also be noted. She navigated well the terrible contrasts of ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, aided by splendid solo gamba playing from Thomas Fritzsch. It seemed heartbreakingly apt that, by this hour, darkness had fallen in Leipzig too, Bach’s window image no longer visible. Hans-Christoph Begemann generally sounded more comfortable as Pilate than in the bass arias, where his tone tended towards the cloudy, in unfortunate contrast with Loges.

This remained, however, not only an impressive but also a moving performance. I can conceive of no better Holy Week observance.

Mark Berry