Review: Truly a religious experience

St John Passion St John's, Smith Square Barbican

With Bach on hand to dramatise the Gospels of St John and St Matthew, who needs big-screen religious epics? There can't be a cinematic blockbuster that paints a more vivid scenario than the three-dimensional animation of the St John Passion's opening chorus, where baleful woodwinds represent Christ's pain, airborne strings etch the Holy Spirit and the presence of God is reflected by a powerful bassline. Two Eastertide performances achieved varying levels of interpretative success, both performed on period instruments and both underplaying the driving pulse of Bach's string writing.

The two evangelists were chalk and cheese. At St John's, on Good Friday, Ian Bostridge combined melodrama and vocal finesse, while polyphony and canzona under Stephen Layton provided him with solid if sometimes cavalier support. Easter Sunday's Barbican presentation by the Gabrieli Consort and Gabrieli Players, conducted by Paul McCreesh, employed smaller forces - just eight voices in all, though the band included a harpsichord - with Charles Daniels declaiming the narrative in place of an indisposed Barry Banks.

Bostridge acted the true zealot, focusing on salient dramatic episodes (ie the chorus's cries for Barrabas) as if he had personally witnessed them. There was real spite in his portrayal, too - real irony, as he related how the chief priest told Pilate "Write not, the King of the Jews but ... I am the King of the Jews". He would confide from the front of the stage, turning to the chorus with the arrival of each chorale, while the more impersonal Daniels stood elevated towards the rear of the stage.

As for the soloists, Layton's soprano Catherine Bott, though prone to strain, sang with rather more personality than the pleasing, if bland, Susan Hemington-Jones. Counter-tenor James Bowman employed his ageing voice with vintage artistry, but McCreesh's mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley kept a firmer hold on Bach's musical lines, especially in the heart-rendering aria "Es ist vollbracht!" that precedes Christ's passing. Peter Harvey's Christ was more vibrant than Robert Rice's at St John's, where Thomas Guthrie tackled the additional bass arias (Harvey sang them all), braving a nosebleed in the arioso. Paul Agnew was Layton's excellent tenor soloist, though Daniels' singing of the tenor arias was equally lyrical.

Instrumental support was notably superior at the Barbican, where the Gabrielis' minimal forces made their strongest impression in part two and Jonathan Manson bowed an eloquent viola da gamba accompaniment in "Es ist vollbracht!". In the crowd scenes, McCreesh's quartet sounded like hecklers obsessed by counterpoint (his four soloists joined in only for the chorales and larger choruses), and yet the approach paid dividends, especially where rhythmic incisiveness is called for, as when the ferocious chorus casts lots for Jesus's garments.

McCreesh's handling of the chorales was generally more flowing and keenly attenuated than Layton's, though anyone eavesdropping at St John's will surely have left the building nourished by what they heard.

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