United Kingdom Easter Festival at St John’s – Bach Johannes-Passion and Vox Luminis: St John’s Smith Square, London, 15 & 17.4.2022. (CC)
Bach – Johannes-Passion, BWV 245
Nick Pritchard (Evangelist), William Thomas (Jesus), Rowan Pierce (soprano), Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Ruairi Bowen (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Polyphony; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Stephen Layton (conductor)
Schütz – Musikalische Exequien, Op.7
Bach – Actus Tragicus, BWV 106. Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4
Vox Luminis; Lionel Meunier (bass, director)
It was Bach’s St John Passion that was the last concert I attended before the first lockdown, an unforgettable account by the Bach Collegium Japan at the Barbican Centre under Masaaki Suzuki with a phenomenal line-up of soloists (review). With live concert-making now in full swing and events open throughout the land, many would have it we are emerging at the other end of the pandemic, so perhaps it was fitting to hear the piece again, this time with the superb vocal group Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Stephen Layton. The actual timing of the concert within the day itself was also significant, the Passion itself emerged around the Vespers on the afternoon of Good Friday. Hence, presumably, the 2.30pm start.
Perhaps the orchestral opening to the chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (Lord, thou our master) set the tone and established the differences between the two performances. Where the oboes in Suzuki’s performances had been expressions of abject human pain, here the OAE’s surprisingly warm sound seemed to blunt Bach’s searing writing. The choral lines in this performance, too, were not quite as clear-cut as one might hope.
The soloists were clearly carefully chosen, with Nick Pritchard’s Evangelist in particular a tour de force: narrator, yes, but one who holds at his core the truly special nature of the Jesus crucifixion myth. His Jesus (as it were) was William Thomas, as resonant a bass as one is likely to hear on these shores, especially in the lower regions of his voice.
Hugh Cutting was a fine countertenor soloist, strong of voice and eloquent in his ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ (To liberate me from the shackles of my vices) – a pity the woodwind counterpoint got a bit lost in the acoustic here. But this was certainly a reminder of Cutting’s previous excellence in the cantata by Johann Christoph Bach, Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte (O that I had tears enough) at the Wigmore Hall as part of a Solomon’s Knot concert in early March. If Damian Guillon for Suzuki previously won out in sheer emotional power, Cutting remains a fine Bach interpreter; and Cutting certainly came into his own full power in the later, impeccably beautiful, ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ (It is fulfilled!).
Always a pleasure to encounter soprano Rowan Pierce: never has she disappointed, and this was no exception, her aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten’ (I follow also with joy to be near thee) absolutely radiant; her later ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ (With tears overflowing) delivered with miraculously open voice, and truly heartfelt., If there was a weak link in the soloists, it was tenor Ruairi Bowen, whose propensity for the higher dynamic levels became wearing after a while.
There are of course two bass soloists in this piece: Jesus and the member of the solo quartet: Ashley Riches was the latter, delivering with his characteristic panache, drama and clear enunciation, his clarity at speed (particularly difficult in the bass register) superb throughout.
No denying the power of the Bach chorales in Polyphony’s renditions here, and Layton ensured we heard just how individual each one is in approach. And yet in the final analysis, the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts, the heart-rending emotions on display just that little bit too distanced.
The concert two days later by Vox Luminis was simply radiant. We moved a little back in time initially, a performance of the Musikalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672). Preceded by the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (as they did in their commercial recording of this piece). It sets up an appropriately ritualistic sense before we hear the richer vocal textures of ‘Nacket werde ich wiederum dahinfahren’ (Naked came I from my mother’s womb). The blending of voices in the Schütz was beyond compare, as was the antiphonal use of space (one can hear this in the group’s recording, too, but how effective it was when physically present). This music is clearly in the performers’ souls; every hairpin was from the heart, alternations between soli and cappella rich and vibrant. The florid passages in Schütz’s music, too, along with the dissonances, told clear stories most notably perhaps at ‘Wenn teure Sünde gleich blutrot wäre’ (If your sin be as scarlet).
The tightness of ensemble and of vocal exchanges was beautiful to experience: the two sopranos in ‘… aber sie sind in Frieden’ (…but they are in peace) but one example. Throughout, the organ contributions of Kris Verhelst should be acknowledged: a lovely sound, and the perfect support for the choir. Moving to the more homophonic textures of the central motet, ‘Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe’ (Lord, if I have none but thee’) found two choral groups exchanging ideas spatially, both absolutely equal: to hear this eight-voice motet performed thus was little short of revelatory. The final section involved the use of an offstage choral group, moving towards the famous words ‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead). A truly moving account.
To Bach, again: the so-called Actus Tragicus, BWV 106 (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit / God’s own time is the very best of times), here with a somewhat filled out instrumental group (including Meunier now on second recorder, to Benny Aghassi’s first). The sense of carrying a weight was visceral, the contrast to the words ‘Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit’ as clear as day. A special mention for Sebastian Myrus’s bass solos here, perhaps. The joy comes from a serenity in the face of Death, miraculously projected here with precisely zero faults to the solo work. The piece concludes with a fascinating setting of a chorale, ‘Glorie, Lob, Ehr und Herrlichkeit’ (Glory, laud, praise and majesty) with impetus given by the off-beat instrumental ripieno.
Finally (almost) the cantata BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in death’s bonds). Positioned last as it uses the most resources. It is a fascinating piece that includes great contrasts of mood, that at ‘Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein’ (Praise God and be thankful to him) gloriously happy, for example). There is a real exuberance of counterpoint in the strings here that was maintained for long periods. The work is carefully structured as a palindrome at its highest structural level, while the chorale melody dominates; and Bach’s counterpoint around that melody knows no bounds. Beautiful antiphonal imitation in the fourth verse (‘Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg’ / It was a strange battle) hardly prepared one for the violone solo in the penultimate verse (‘So feiern wir das holte Fest’ / Thus we celebrate the high feast), a movement that seems to prefigure a similar moment in the Matthäus-Passion and which here found a virtuoso violone executant in the form of Benoît Vanden Bemden.
And what an encore we received: Buxtehude’s Jesu meines Lebens Leben (a piece Vox Luminis has recorded on the Alpha label on their album Abendmusiken), a performance of the utmost beauty and a reminder of the stature of this composer. The purity of the vocal sound here, as everywhere, was utterly remarkable.