fri 15/11/2019

Bach St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Egarr, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Bach St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Egarr, Barbican Hall

Bach St John Passion, Academy of Ancient Music, Egarr, Barbican Hall

World-class soloists lead an operatic take on the Passion that changed the musical world

Another singular German take on the Crucifixion earlier than Bach's: panels of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece

A Leipzig church is surely the place we’d most like to be for Bach on Good Friday. Never mind: the Barbican Hall is kinder to the best period instrument ensembles than it is to big symphony orchestras. Better still, having sat stunned and weepy for a good few minutes at the end of this performance, I’m happy to evangelise and proclaim that no better team could be assembled anywhere for the original 1724 version of this world-changing musical Passion.

Richard Egarr (pictured below by Marco Borggreve), directing from the harpsichord, no doubt deserves the credit for the line that passed, without overdrive, through Bach’s most electrifying narrative. What a difference, though, a perfect line-up of soloists makes: a St John Passion that flows like a river without rocks in the middle is a rarity. James Gilchrist’s Evangelist, the platonic ideal of fiery indignation tempered with humble compassion, must surely have raised the game of the four aria singers, Matthew Rose’s true-bass Christ and even newcomer Ashley Riches’s nuanced characterization of Pilate.

Richard Egarr by Marco BorggreveExpressive urgency passed like a beacon between the artists, creating two sequences of especially riveting drama. You’d have thought Gilchrist’s peerless handling of the way Bach illustrates the bitter tears of thrice-denying Peter would cast the tenor to follow in the shade (Gilchrist pictured below). Not at all: Andrew Kennedy kept the tension crackling in the 1724 aria “Ach, mein Sinn, wo willst du endlich hin”. An exciting hurtle towards a top note or two even recalled the dangerous edge in Peter Anders’s wartime recording of Schubert’s Winterreise.

With the energy levels unsapped thanks to a short retuning break rather than an interval, Part Two held us at the same level. And then came the daring silences, ushered in with the release of the great alto aria “Es ist vollbracht”. It was projected unforgettably with the now-familiar poised anguish and monumental triumph only Sarah Connolly can convey in equal measure, rendered more intimate still by equal partner Reiko Ichise’s hypersentitive viola da gamba playing.

James GilchristWhat followed remained on the same exalted plane. There was the charismatic joy of Christopher Purves, now in full gear following the remains of the infection that seemed to have been plaguing him in the penultimate performance I saw of Written on Skin, bouncing a complementary chorale into discreet action. After a further brief bout of aching arioso from Kennedy, there was also the searing dynamic range of that wonderful soprano Elizabeth Watts in “Zerfließe, mein Herz”, AAM woodwind in plangent tow.

Within the drama proper, the Academy’s youthful chorus seemed to be aiming for agility rather than the feral quality that can animate the propulsive crowd numbers; but you couldn’t fault the shapely, word-sensitive phrasing Egarr drew from them in the chorales. The subtle touches he brought to his harpsichord continuo line – an after-twang, for example, to illustrate the crown of thorns – were echoed by his superb orchestral players; from the knife-thrust of the oboes’ semitonal clashes in the opening, you could tell this was going to be music-theatre on a metaphysical level. All Good Friday boxes sublimely ticked, then: pity, terror, consolation, even a dash of anticipatory joy. The fireworks of Easter can only seem tawdry by comparison.

Comments

"The subtle touches he brought to his harpsichord continuo line – an after-twang, for example, to illustrate the crown of thorns – were echoed by his superb orchestral players; from the knife-thrust of the oboes’ semitonal clashes in the opening, you could tell this was going to be music-theatre on a metaphysical level." With this, and so much else, you make the excitement of the performance palpable even to those of us who are only able to read about it here.

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