Bach Reinvigorated – St John Passion

St John Passion, BWV245Handl
Ecce quomodo moritur

Evangelist – Mark Padmore
Christus – Peter Harvey

I Fagiolini
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Stephen Dillane (reader)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 22 September, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

While the St John Passion is an Eastertide staple of concert halls and churches across the land, this performance set out to strip away any comfortable convention from the work. Mark Padmore’s bold promise of “Bach reinvigorated” was based on a historically informed approach that stripped the performing forces back to a conductor-less instrumental ensemble and ten singers doubling as chorus and soloists, the work framed with readings and a Lutheran funeral motet, as was apparently Bach’s own practice. This, ran the subtext, is serious stuff; instead of an interval gin and tonic, we got T S Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”.

The performers were arrayed in a curve across the barren stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall: instrumentalists to the left, singers to the right, with Padmore seated in front of a supremely authoritative continuo section centre-stage. The performance began with Stephen Dillane declaiming the opening words of the Gospel according to St John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…”. With that we were off, the urgent tug of the bass driving the ensemble into the stormy waters of the opening chorus, a plangent piling up of tension and release. In the absence of a conductor, the grand choruses were an impressive feat of attentive and considered musicianship, and very exciting to hear in this uncommonly committed performance.

Central to this was Mark Padmore’s fiery Evangelist. It is difficult to think of another singer who better combines the immaculate technique and moral gravitas required for the role, and his execution of Bach’s word-painting was thrilling. Peter Harvey’s Christus contrasted well, a rendition of gentle certainty, and the singing of I Fagiolini was faultless, especially in the exquisitely balanced choruses and chorales.

Stephen Dillane’s reading of “Ash Wednesday” stood in for the central sermon. The later Eliot seems to be a touchstone for Padmore, who quotes from “Four Quartets” in his introduction; whatever the shortcomings of Eliot’s mystical spiritualism, Dillane’s delivery was powerfully sardonic, drawing every drop of drama from the poet’s wrestling with John’s hermeneutic paradox. More consoling was the concluding motet by Jacob Handl (Jacobus Gallus, 1550-1591), whose polyphony acted as balm to the rigours of Bach’s reinvigorated counterpoint.

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