Classical Music: St John Passion St John's Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture
Bach's St John Passion is both the earlier and the more enigmatic of his two surviving works in this form. Whereas the St Matthew Passion is both musically and texturally more balanced and heterogeneous, the St John is more of a mongrel - choruses and arias bunched rather than distributed evenly - the fault lies with St John's telling of the tale rather than with Bach. At St John's Smith Square on Good Friday, Stephen Layton conducted as spare and austere a performance as I've heard for some time. Here was a "period" performance with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages of this approach: a small band, the Brandenburg Consort, bristling with wonderfully coloured instruments - baroque flutes, baroque oboes, oboe da caccia, violas d'amore, viol da gamba - an expert chorus, Polyphony, and a clutch of soloists contributing to a small-scale reading. But where was the passion? Somehow an air of "correctness" seemed to hover, passion very definitely taking second place to scholarship. True, at the end of the performance there was as long a silence as I've ever witnessed in a concert hall. But for me, the invariably light and airy textures, the fast speeds, and the springy articulation failed to bring any sense of real sorrow.

The Passion is a dramatic story which needs dramatic telling. In Ian Bostridge, a more moving and intense Evangelist would be hard to find. His performance continually turned up the heat, catching the urgency, the tragedy, always alert in even so few words as "Jesus antwortete". In the confrontation with the crowd over Barabas, Bostridge's contained anger in a section of recitative with a lengthy chromatically embellished scale made me long for him to escape into the greater length of an aria; his voice is so beautiful, so well focused and so well used.

If Thomas Guthrie and Gavin Carr, as Christ and Pilate respectively, were both gravelly and lacking in character, the arias that were assigned to anonymous characters fared better. Ruth Holton's bell-like "Ich folge dir" brought sunny singing to a sunny afternoon whereas "Zeerfliesse, mein Herze', the last substantial aria of the piece, finally brought some deeply felt passion in superb singing. Joseph Cornwell's "Ach, mein Sinn" picked up the urgency of calamity following Peter's denial, but in a tempo so fast that any passionate contemplation was lost in a dash for dotted rhythms, although the succeeding calm of the chorale marvellously pointed Bach's dramatic use of these simple hymns. Colin Campbell's bass aria "Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen" with Chorus intervention of "wohin?" was deftly managed, but it was a pity that Catherine Denley's moving "Es ist vollbracht!" was hobbled by too careful, albeit impressively accurate, viola da gamba obbligato.

ANNETTE MORREAU

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