Bach’s St John Passion at the Barbican Hall review ****

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Britten Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia Voices

Barbican Hall, 14th April 2017

Britten Sinfonia
Mark Padmore – Evangelist/director
Jacqueline Shave –  leader/director
Simon Russell Beale – speaker
Britten Sinfonia Voices

JS Bach – St John’s Passion

They were a glum looking bunch these great classical composers weren’t they? It is alright for us with our endless, carefully composed, beaming selfies but these poor b*ggers only had one shot at pictorial immortality normally and relied on some hack artist to deliver it. Of course, the real reason they all look grumpy is obviously because it is so tricky to paint a smile. But I find it interesting that a combination of the “genius” theory of artistic accomplishment together with these received pictorial representations so often leads us into divining the temperament of the man (for alas it was always a man) from his music.

Anyway JS does look a bit stern in this picture. I guess he was a pious chap but then that might largely have come with the job. In contrast the St John Passion to me is anything but stern and pious. It is a dramatic story, well told, with no let up in pace (the bigger St Matthew Passion is not necessarily better in my view for clocking in at 3 hours vs the 2 hours here). JSB mixes up the recitative and chorus, the solo arias, the chorales and the musical accompaniment to marvellous effect here.

Now this performance was delivered, as I understand it, with the forces intended by JSB, so a couple of everything, first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, flutes and oboes, augmented by double bass, cor anglais, bassoon, organ continuo and oboe d’amore and viola da gamba. Thus a mix of modern and period instruments. Each of the vocal parts was a single line sung by eleven members of Britten Sinfonia Voices, including its director Eamonn Dougan, alongside Mark Padmore, who is, rightly, considered a pre-eminent singer of the Evangelist role, and whose vision this performance was.

However, I have to say that the Barbican Hall is not the cosiest venue for such an enterprise, which impacted a couple of the arias, and, just occasionally, swallowed Mr Padmore’s recitative. and ensured that some of the more vibrant chorales were a bit murky.

Laid on top of the piece were a couple of readings from the mighty Simon Russell-Beale, of Psalm 22 and an incredibly moving Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot. I doubt there is a man on earth who is better at thundering out this sort of stuff whilst making it look easy – just marvellous – though I guess it will have wound up the purists. And the piece ended, as apparently it did in JSB’s day in Leipzig, with a restorative motet by a chap called Jacob Handl.

Overall then I enjoyed this performance, though my attention did wander a bit. I am persuaded by this stripped back approach with mostly modern instruments when compared to the big guns approach which I have experienced for this, and the St Matthew Passion in the past, but I wonder if a smaller hall and a definitive leader on stage might have just helped clarify things a little.

Still this is just minor grumbling. At the end of the day it is still a beautiful piece of music whichever way you cut it, notably in the chorales at the top of each Part and the run of arias post the Crucifixion. I am looking forward to the next Bach workout.

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