Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkably powerful St John Passion streamed from Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach’s St John Passion, BWV 245: Nick Pritchard {Evangelist}, William Thomas (Christus}, Alex Ashworth (Pilatus), Julia Doyle (soprano), Alexander Chance (countertenor), Peter Davoren (tenor), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, streamed on DG Stage (click here) 2.4.2021. (CC)

In March 2020, Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki performed the St John Passion at the Barbican; a lot has happened since then, and no surprise that this year’s offering is online.

In an introductory video, Sir John Eliot Gardiner referred to this St John Passion performance as, ‘like emerging from hibernation’ after all the ‘horrors, tragedies, disappointments of lockdown’. It was to have been the start of a tour which will not happen how, but it did offer a significant temporary reprieve with ‘some of the most beautiful and touching music that has ever existed’, a piece with the ‘outreach of a Greek tragedy, goodies, baddies, people of different fallibilities’.

Bach’s St John Passion in Oxford’s Shedonian Theatre

Performed in a completely empty Sheldonian Theatre, the performers were able to maximise the use of the space, which added a sense of drama that was absolutely in congruence with Gardiner’s reading. His tendency to leap straight into passages of recitative after a substantive movement (aria, chorus) meant there was no sense of disjunction. A socially distanced Monteverdi Choir performed from memory. Sadly, there were no subtitles to the video; but then again, many who viewed would either know it inside out or own a text from a recording.

That opening, set at Gethsemane, offered insight into the difference between Suzuki and Gardiner. In Suzuki’s hands (both live and on the recent BIS recording), the oboe dissonances in the opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm’ were stark, painful; for Gardiner, the anguish was there, but less overtly raw; taking the chorus quite slowly, there was a sort of leaden heaviness (I’m tempted to say as if they had a cross to bear …).

Gardiner heard the piece in one long span, his structural awareness everywhere evident: and nowhere more so than in the harmonic potency of the very end of Part One, and in the sheer graphic, elemental force of the quaking of the Earth later on. This sense of cumulative tension was the performance’s defining interpretative factor.

The chorus throughout, evenly spread around the theatre, shone. The Monteverdi Choir is one of the most disciplined of all (parallels with Laurence Equilbey’s accentus spring to mind); yet they have all the power to deliver spine-tingling ‘Kreutzige’ in the work’s final stage, or to delineate lines in juggernaut fugues. And at their lightest, they float on air.

Along the way, Bach offers some remarkable scorings, all of which Gardiner honoured, creating a kind of Scriptural-musical kaleidoscope. One thinks of the bass aria ‘Betrachte meine Seel,’ with its obbligato lute (Eligio Luis Quinteiro): remarkable sounds, brilliantly performed. Or the fragility of the tenor aria (using the 1739 text) ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ magnificently sung by Peter Davoren, (whose engagement with the aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ included an almost spat out ‘Mein Misetat’ (‘My misdeed’). Remarkable.

The soloists were young, and perfectly chosen. Nick Pritchard’s tireless Evangelist was a miracle, his diction exemplary, his shaping of the line infallible. The Christus, William Thomas, is the most amazing bass, so firm in the lower regions of his voice, authoritative, believable. What made his voice notable was the absolute equality throughout his range, the upper reaches suffering from no loss of body whatsoever. The soprano, Julia Doyle, has a light, lovely voice, her aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ with its pair of flutes a real highlight. Placing William Thomas and the excellent Alex Ashworth (Christus and Pilatus respectively) opposite each other on the Sheldonian’s stage – in opposition, in other words, worked perfectly in the context of this reading. Alexander Chance has a beautifully strong voice; engaging, powerful, a voice I would like to experience live.

The combination of superb camera work and the highest standard of performance made this a St John Passion to remember. A shot of sunlight coming in through the windows to the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ (‘Who has struck you so’) was as striking as the choir’s pianissimo for the chorale’s second verse; all contrasted with the darker later stages (windows firmly blocked off). But the credit for the success of the performance must fall on Gardiner and his astonishing grasp of Bach’s processes. A remarkably powerful performance.

Colin Clarke

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