St John Passion

St John Passion, BWV245

Evangelist – Christoph Prégardien
Christus – Konrad Jarnot

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (mezzo-soprano), Jan Kobow (tenor) & Christian Immler (baritone)

Choir Collegium Vocale Gent

Orchestra Collegium Vocale Gent
Philippe Herreweghe

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 5 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Johann Sebastian Bach’s setting of the “St John Passion” has always been the poor relation to his of the one ‘according to St Matthew’. The smaller scale, more intimate treatment and the meditative, rather than dramatic, effect are all obvious reasons as to why this should be.

But there is also the fundamentally different nature of the texts, the gospels. Our popular understanding of Jesus’s adult life essentially derives from Matthew’s telling. In comparison with this straightforward and vivid account, John is more intellectual, but also can be wordy, pedantic and confusing.

In Philippe Herreweghe’s immensely experienced conducting, Bach’s treatment of John’s gospel was here given an immaculate performance, powerful in its spiritual unity, notable above all for impeccable choral singing. The Choir of Collegium Vocale Gent brought excellent intonation and beauty of sound, effortlessly switching between being the Jewish crowd, the contemporary followers of Jesus or the sorrowful Christians of later times. The Choir’s members sang with commitment and intensity, while their colleagues in the Orchestra, using on ‘original’ instruments, were especially sensitive in the accompaniments provided for arias.

It was felicitous that the most important ‘role’ was also the outstanding vocal performance. As the Evangelist Christoph Prégardien was expressive, lyrical, and ideal in diction. He strongly characterised the narrative. In comparison, Konrad Jarnot made a rather remote Christus.

Of the other soloists, Camilla Tilling produced ravishing tones, exemplary intonation and ideally judged her vocal weight, but, in a way reminiscent of Gundula Janowitz, the words were often swallowed. Ingeborg Danz sang the key phrase of her aria and of the whole Passion – “Es ist vollbracht” – to perfection, spiritual and devout, but in more stormy moments, such as the trio section of that same aria, which speaks of the battle won, was drowned out in the aural texture. Jan Kobow, likewise, had a beautiful voice per se, but failed to make a penetrating impression in the overall sound-picture. Christian Immler, standing in at short notice, made a decent fist as Pontius Pilate, a character who gets more to do than in the ‘Matthew Passion’; Immler was at his best in his final aria.

Bach obviously felt the narrative limitations of John’s text and imported a couple of stories from Matthew that gave him scope for ‘action’ sequences – Peter denying Christ, and the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom. It is impossible for to now listen to the ‘John Passion’ without recalling what Bach composed a few years later for the ‘Matthew’. Many of the dramatic devices, even the big final chorus, may now be heard as being prototypes for the later, bigger work. But these must have struck the first listeners as extraordinarily innovative.

Again, the text is significant to the mood of the “St John Passion”. Because his gospel account is quite complex, most of the interpolated chorales and arias are partly didactic in their content, telling us what we should be feeling as Christians. This contrasts with the ‘Matthew’ equivalents, which principally express the imagined feelings of the worshipper as the story unfolds. At the end of this performance, Herreweghe did not leave us consoled – the “St John Passion” is not cathartic in the same way as the ‘Matthew’ is; rather, the conductor – and Bach – made us feel that the spirit is all that exists, and all that matters.

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