Bach’s St. John Passion Takes a Place Where it Belongs

United StatesUnited States Johann Sebastian Bach, St. John Passion, Soloists with members of the Yale Schola Cantorum, Juilliard415 and members of the Yale Baroque Ensemble, Masaaki Suzuki (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, New York,  4.4.2014 (SSM) 

Kyle Stegall, Tenor— Evangelist
Edmund Milly, Bass-baritone — Jesus
Molly Netter, Soprano Arias
Sara Couden, Alto Arias
Gene Stenger, Tenor Arias
Andrew Padgett, Bass Arias and Pilate

Appreciation for the Passions of Bach sometimes comes slowly. At first the recitatives seem endless, the chorales simplistic and numerous, the number of arias few and far between; and when the arias do appear they are slow in tempo and dire in mood. Those who are familiar with Bach’s cantatas won’t find here the glorious brass fanfares that open many of them, or the upbeat arias with obbligato accompaniment. In fact, neither Passion even requires brass instruments. One can slip a CD of Bach’s cantatas in a car’s player  and drive merrily along, but it would not likely be the  same if the Passions were played instead.

The two extant and essentially complete Passions are the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion, and the music and text of the St. John have been considered weaker than the later St. Matthew. Although Mendelssohn revived both, the St. John Passion never got the attention it deserved until Schumann conducted  it 1851, calling it “one of the profound and perfected works of  Bach.” It is only in the last fifty years or so that the St. John has been judged on its own merits, and it now even has proponents who consider it better than its younger sibling. John Eliot Gardiner in his exhaustive yet eminently readable Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven devotes about fifty pages to the St. John but only thirty-six to the St. Matthew. Gardner states that the St. John “packs a more powerful dramatic punch than any Passion setting before or since.”

There is in the St. John Passion a sense of soul-searching inwardness reminiscent of Bach’s earliest cantatas, and one could convey the ambiance of the St. John by just reading their titles alone. These early cantatas express a deeply religious, tortured, almost morbid fervor felt so strongly in St. John: BWV 131, ”Out of the Depths, I Call Lord to Thee”; BWV 4, “Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death”; BWV 21, “I Have Much Affliction”; and BWV 12, “Weeping, Wailing, Worrying and Fearing.” The famous St. John‘s opening chorus which comes out of nowhere, de profundis as it were, with shouts of “Herr, unser Herrscher,” has a  power that even for Bach is rare. Few other opening works (overtures if you will) convey so much of the drama to come. The overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni comes to mind but little else.

Masaaki Suzuki has always had a  way with the St. John Passion, having recorded it for CD and DVD several times. Viewing a performance of this Passion done over fifteen years ago, I could barely discern any changes in his approach to the work here. Even the way the instrumentalists and chorus came and went onstage was similar. This might be considered unusual: many conductors are never satisfied, always striving for ways to get closer to the music. But Suzuki in fact has this work down cold and so close to perfection that any changes would likely harm it. The only major differences between the  two performances was Suzuki’s use of an alto instead of a countertenor and some changes in instruments used for the basso continuo.

In both Passions the key to a successful performance is the Evangelist. Kyle Stegall’s reading of the Gospel came close to that of Ian Bostridge’s, under whom he, not surprisingly, studied. The sweetness of his voice was a pleasure to listen to and at times almost made the musical parts seem secondary to the text. He did a fine job of the word-coloring techniques that Bach used so frequently. For example, in the recitative “Da verleugnete Petrus” there is the text “wept most bitterly.” Bach stretches the word weinete almost two measures to simulate the sounds of weeping.

The other major singers came out from the chorus when needed. Sara Couden gave appropriately mournful readings of the alto arias. Molly Netter’s voice was crisp and clear, white yet warm. She gave an excellent rendition of the poignant  aria “Zerfleisse, meine Herzen, the equivalent of the even more touching “Erbaume Nicht” from the St. Matthew Passion. On the other end of the vocal spectrum Edmund Milly gave an authoritative, confident voice to Jesus as did Andrew Padgett in the  role of Pilate.

The chorus and orchestra were a little muddy at the start but quickly pulled themselves together as the words and music were carried along by the devoted conducting of one of the world’s great Bach specialists, Masaaki Suzuki.

Stan Metzger

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