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S & H Concert Review

J.S. Bach, ‘St. John Passion’ Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Rattle, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday May 31st 2002. (ME)


My last ‘St. John Passion’ was Rilling’s at the Barbican in March, and it would be difficult to find two more contrasting performances, Rilling’s being noble yet impassioned, clean – lined and performed with style by a mostly emergent team of soloists, whereas Rattle’s was far more generalized and was performed by a very well known but strangely divided line – up. There were two major oddities in this performance, one of them simply perverse, the other inexplicable. The first was having only one bass soloist, who sang not only Christus but also Pilate and the bass arias; fine though David Wilson-Johnson was this disposition does not work for me, and it’s asking too much of any soloist, in my opinion – why not go all the way and have the Evangelist sing the tenor solos? Yes, I’m well aware of the history of performance practice in this piece, but it still works better with two basses if you’re going to have two tenors.

The second oddity was the organist’s display of histrionics, which distracted from much of the performance; bare-shouldered and décolleté in a gold lame encrusted bustier whilst everyone else onstage was clad in black, this lady’s show of phantom-of-the-opera style antics should surely have been clamped down on by somebody – and what was the Evangelist doing turning the pages for her, solemnly avoiding looking down her cleavage, making it all even more distracting?

The opening chorale did not have much sense of attack, but by ‘O grosse Lieb’ things had settled down and the European Voices gave fluent performances, especially in ‘Ach grosser König’ and in the neatly incisive close of ‘Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn,’ but I found myself longing for the reverence and the feeling that the choir was sensing the conductor’s every wish, that Rilling’s forces brought to the work. The playing was intermittently fine, but ultimately lacking in the ideal sense of power; ‘cello continuo and woodwind had some lovely moments, though.

Ian Bostridge’s ubiquitous Evangelist is well known in London, and of course he sings it beautifully, but I am perturbed by what seems to be his desire to snarl his way through certain lines, and he still does not give the ideal onomatopoeic response at such moments as ‘weinete bitterlich.’ David Wilson Johnson surpassed himself in every bass voice role; he was dignified and moving as Christus, urbane as Pilate and mellifluous in the arias, and if ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ lacked an ideal sense of confidence and power, this was hardly surprising given what had gone before it. Michael Chance sang ‘Es ist vollbracht’ very movingly although his tone was at times underpowered, as was that of Rosemary Joshua who, despite singing ‘Ich folge dir’ brightly, seemed less disciplined than is her wont. Mark Padmore had the difficult task of singing the tenor solos, and he accomplished them creditably but without much variety or beauty of tone.

Ultimately, this was not a ‘St. John’ for those who like their Bach to be moving, and after exposure to the ENO’s recent staged version, this one seemed rather cold, only engaging our deepest sympathies during the wonderfully touching rendition of the narrative at the foot of the cross. The Queen Elizabeth Hall’s size and intimacy would seem perfect for this work, so it was a pity that on this occasion it just did not seem to take fire – London audiences will hear a very different Bach Passion when the English Concert presents the St. Matthew in the vast space of the Albert Hall at the Proms on Sunday August 4th.

Melanie Eskenazi

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