Bach’s St John Passion at St John’s [Polyphony/Stephen Layton with OAE, Ian Bostridge & Neal Davies]

St John Passion, BWV245 [sung in German]

Evangelist – Ian Bostridge
Christus – Neal Davies

Katherine Watson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) & Roderick Williams (bass)


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Stephen Layton

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 6 April, 2012
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Stephen Layton. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaIt is a perilously short fall from the grace of tradition to the blight of routine, and it would be understandable if Stephen Layton – who has been dusting off Bach’s St John Passion for Easters innumerable – were to let Polyphony’s annual Bach performance drive itself. In the event, of course, no such slippage occurred, and the 2012 account was electrifying in its immediacy, dramatic momentum and musical precision. From the pellucid shimmer of strings at the opening and the rich chordal attack at the choir’s supplicatory “Herr”, it was clear that the only matter of routine on this Good Friday afternoon would be the performers’ predictable excellence.

Not only is J. S. Bach’s St John Passion a tighter, more urgent work than its spiritual and expansive St Matthew counterpart, it is marked by some episodes of astonishing versatility and imagination. In Part Two the elaborate chorus ‘Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!’ – that ferocious depiction of the baying crowd as Christ is brought to judgement before Pilate – was vividly characterised by the outstanding young singers of Polyphony. The choir’s questioning interjections of “Wohin?” lent air and elevation to the tender bass aria, ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ (one of several highlights in Roderick Williams’s exquisitely sung performance that also embraced the role of Pilate), while Layton and his singers did full honour to the succession of sibilant consonants in ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’.

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Marco Borggreve, 2010The instrumentalists were alertly responsive to Layton’s baton (well, pencil). Richard Tunnicliffe in particular was busy and eloquent throughout, whether as the leader of a two-strong cello section, as a discreet continuo player or in his flowing Viola da gamba accompaniment to ‘Es ist vollbracht’, one of two countertenor arias delivered with self-effacing artistry by Iestyn Davies. Isolated examples of scrappy playing were inevitably accentuated by the small numbers involved – this was a chamber-sized version of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – but such moments were brief and rare.

Neal Davies was an exemplary Jesus who infused every line with depth and fervour, and Nicholas Mulroy sang the tenor arias with comparable conviction if a notch too little power. Katherine Watson seemed nervous during her first aria (a tension that may explain some approximate passing notes and snatched breathing) and her second lacked the bloom that she brought to the same forces’ Messiah last Christmas; still, in the company of Ian Bostridge on blazing form, anyone could be forgiven for falling short. His account of the Evangelist had none of the self-conscious mannerisms or vocal reediness that have occasionally marred his work; here instead was a forthright, no-nonsense communicator, a singer of formidable technical security and an impassioned, experienced interpreter of Bach’s extraordinary music.

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