Agony and rapture
St Johnís, Smith Square
Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion
James Gilchrist (Evangelist/tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (Christus), Thomas Guthrie (Pilate), Gillian Keith (soprano), James Bowman (countertenor), James Rutherford (bass)
Polyphony, Academy of Ancient Music
Stephen Layton (conductor)
A Bach Passion at St Johnís, Smith Square, the Wren church built for Queen Anne in Westminster that now serves as a concert hall, is by now an annual tradition. It is a secular observance that provides a similar emotional punch to the dayís Christian liturgy without the need to buy into any specific religious doctrine. Bachís own belief world is thoroughly Lutheran, and the meditative texts of the passions dwell on Godís glory and human redemption through Christís suffering. But the passion oratorio form is also high art, an exploration through various musical and poetic forms of the ways of being human in response to suffering and divine grace. The already magnificent gospel narratives form the core of a pair of works that offer beautiful, richly human reflections on beauty and pain, love and loss, well beyond any doctrinal interpretation of the gospels. Various public re-enactments of the road to Golgotha that take place on the same day offer a collective experience of a symbolic event; and this yearís alternative, the film The Passion of the Christ, offers the vivid physical reality of the passion to prompt intense reflection on the sinfulness of the viewer. Bachís finely layered works have space for both the third-person symbol of the cross and individual spiritual exercises, as well as for communal expression of responses to both. There is (literally) something for everyone, as there is in the message of the gospels.
There was definitely an audience at St Johnís, rather than a congregation, but the religious essence of the St John Passion was inescapable. The Academy of Ancient Music, the original historically-informed band, played with commitment and an dangerous edge that conveyed tightly controlled but extreme emotion, at times coming close "speaking" with instruments in a way that emphasized the musicís affinity with Monteverdi or the Italian Handel. This was Bach as baroque, in the aesthetic as well as the musical sense, rather than as a romantic before Romanticism. Polyphony similarly lived up to the name, bringing a craggy, mediaeval violence into the crowd choruses and monumental grandeur into the chorales and the great opening and closing choruses.
Stephen Layton kept a tight hold on the dramatic shape of the work, which follows the hermetic gospel text where it will. He was helped greatly in this by the supremely intelligent but intense performance of James Gilchrist as the Evangelist. Gilchrist managed, with pretty good German, impeccable intonation and timing and completely unostentatious drama, to make the Evangelist both authoritative and humane. He also sang the tenor arias, with slightly less control but great drama. Gillian Keith was sweet in the soprano arias. James Bowman sang the alto arias with passion and understanding but steadily decreasing voice, so that Von den stricken meiner SŁnden had a shattering impact, while Es ist vollbracht was more of a struggle. James Rutherford sang the bass arias with clarity but only moderate force, suggesting a great voice in the making. David Wilson-Johnson was a resonant Christus.