Polyphony St John Passion

Bach
St John Passion

Evangelist – Anders Jerker Dahlin (tenor)
Christus – Stephen Roberts (baritone)
Pilate – Thomas Guthrie (baritone)

Emma Kirkby (soprano)
James Bowman (countertenor)
Roderick Williams (bass)

Polyphony

The Academy of Ancient Music
Stephen Layton


Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi

Reviewed: 25 March, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Being the lesser of Bach’s two completed Passions, both in scale and, perhaps, attractiveness, the St John Passion is the best choice for a feast like Good Friday (the Christian Church grievous high point in any one year and opposite pole to Easter Sunday) on which the Church, after a fasting period of six weeks, commemorates the mystery of the Crucifixion. Thus, in contrast to the rather opulent performance of the St Matthew Passion by the King’s Consort (in this venue a few days earlier), this one of the St John Passion showed consideration for Good Friday’s theological content and spirituality – even though it gently if decidedly went beyond what one would consider as penitential.

Once again Polyphony showed itself to be one of the finest vocal ensembles of our time. The diverse roles and affects that Bach assigned to the choir, from the demonic turba choruses to the pious chorales and scenes of devotional pathos, were captured with near-perfect articulation, technical brilliance, transparency and a sense for the dramatic situation. And the rapport between Polyphony and Stephen Layton was palpable.

Although the soloists included Emma Kirkby and James Bowman, who were as anticipated, it was the lesser known artists such as Anders Jerker Dahlin and Roderick Williams who left a lasting impression. Dahlin’s Evangelist was particularly compelling, such was the dramatic urgency he managed to convey, which gave new immediacy to a familiar work. And his renditions of “Ach, mein Sinn” and “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” were among the highlights. Here is a young tenor with a voice of considerable sonority and beauty who effortlessly reached the higher notes and generally convinced through his sensitive musicianship.

Another highlight was Roderick Williams’s realisation of the work’s mystical centre; following Jesus’s passing away, the text asks of the benefits for mankind of this sacrifice. “Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen”, captivating enough in its seeming naivety, was presented with Williams’s calm, profound and quietly celebratory declamation.

The Academy’s musicians fully lived up to expectations, with all the sections (particularly the elegant continuo) contributing to the darkly lavish atmosphere. This was a very rewarding concert.



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