St John Passion, BWV245 [1725 version, sung in German]
Ecce quomodo moritur justus
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 16 April, 2019
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Singing works from memory is nothing new, nor performing without a conductor, but Solomon’s Knot, a “baroque collective”, do both with thrilling results. Making its Wigmore Hall debut, this group (even without a ‘starter motor’) performed as a precision-engineered machine – a model of superb blend and ensemble, and, crucially, also with direct communication. These eight singers stepping out for arias and fourteen instrumentalists (led by James Toll) are the business.
This performance of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion was unusual for its use of the 1725 revision. Certainly, its emphasis on contemplation (opening and closing choruses) and operatic intensity (three new arias) brings a different perspective. Part One has an additional chorale and an alternative tenor aria, and Part Two’s changes include the removal of a bass arioso for one for a tenor. By way of recreating a typical Leipzig performance, the Passion was followed by Jacob Handl’s a cappella Ecce quomodo moritur justus – its quiet solemnity beautifully fashioned.
There was just a small reservation about the volume of continuo support, which became unwieldy during Part Two, and a lighter touch would have gone a long way in recitatives, particularly those for the Evangelist, shared by tenors Thomas Herford and Ruairi Bowen. The latter brought impressive clarity to ‘Zerschmettert mich’; why the composer withdrew this stunning scena from the more-familiar version is a mystery. A further rage aria in Part Two allowed Herford and two writhing oboes to portray Christ’s torture – word painting superbly realised – and Alex Ashworth was a stand-out Jesus, bringing terrific definition to the magnificent ‘Himmel reisse’
The soprano contributions drew diamond tone from Zoë Brookshaw and tender fragility from Clare Lloyd-Griffith, while Kate Symonds-Joy and Michal Czerniawski were assured and well-projected, and Jonathan Sells’s ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ was characterful and propelled with energy. Interrupting the Trial and Crucifixion for a tuning break was a shame, and momentum and emotional intensity never quite recovered. However, there were many memorable moments that had me smiling to make Holy Week a joy.