Boston Baroque brought J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion to the stage of Jordan Hall with a fabulous cast of soloists last night. Baritone Andrew Garland sang the role of Jesus, bringing a weighty delivery and strong, clear voice to this central role in the passion even as it is not the weightiest part, musically. He brought a hauntingly hollow-voiced sound to II.29, “Es ist vollbracht,” turning these final words on the cross into a spine-tingling musical memory. Tenor John Mark Ainsley sang the role of the Evangelist, the heart of this work, with clear diction and an expressive delivery of the narration. He was feelingly mournful in I.12 when he sang, “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly). This was a memorable performance which I shall remember for years to come. Jesse Blumberg, baritone, sang the role of Pilate with gravity and feeling, voicing the palpable frustration of a government official forced into a decision he personally abhors. Mary Wilson, soprano, brought a classical restraint to her first aria (I.9, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls…”); her second (II.35, “Zerfleiße, mein Herze”) was a model of emotion worthy of an opera. Christopher Lowery, countertenor, likewise offered a stronger reading of his second aria (II.30, “Es ist vollbracht”), fraught with angst and a musical depth that I did not hear in the more restrained first aria (I.7, “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden”) even as the first highlighted his crystalline tone. Tenor Nicholas Phan was a wonderful addition to this cast and gave powerful, compelling readings of both his arias. In I.13, “Ach, mein Sinn,” he was contemplative and caught in the depths of spiritual despair; in II. 20, “Erwäge, wie ein blutgefärbter Rücken,” his delivery perfectly embodied the wrath and anger of the text.
I wish the players and chorus had risen to such heights. Pearlman led an orchestra of 24 period-instrument musicians (many familiar from other ensembles about town) under the leadership of concertmaster Christine Day Martinson, and 21 choristers. This chamber-sized ensemble might have been convened for a church setting. The mixed moments included disagreements over intonation yet also moments of nuanced phrasing from the orchestra. There were ensemble issues in the chorus as well, with individual voices popping out of the texture. Yet the final chorus and chorale (II. 39 & 40 “Ruht wohl” and “Ach, Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein”) conveyed deep emotion and musicality. Unfortunately such stand-out moments were overshadowed by others where I heard far more notes than I heard music. Hopefully, in Saturday’s repeat in Jordan Hall at 8:00, some of these problems will resolve, and the orchestra and chorus can rise to the level of the soloists.
Much was made in the weeks before the performance of the problematic nature of the Passion. To begin with there is a choice of which edition to use. There are four, ranging from the original 1724 version to the fourth, 1749, revision. Not all of these four are complete, but a bit of work can realize a performance text. Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque chose from the “the critical edition of Bach’s complete works”; the BWV edition gives priority to later revisions as representative of the composer’s “final thoughts on the piece.” The text comes primarily from the Gospel According to John (with a couple key details borrowed in from the Gospels of Matthew); at the same time, this passion includes chorales drawn from the Lutheran hymnal. There is also the specter of anti-Semitism: depending on your views, this is either an expression of Bach’s own prejudices, or in the nature of his biblical texts. (Boston Baroque held a pre-concert conversation about this issue; you can watch a video of it here).
Despite these two hurdles, this passion contains extraordinary music which combines the conventions of liturgical settings with the emotional power of secular opera. Moreover it is a remarkably forward-looking work; it combines the story of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion with sections (especially in the chorales) voicing the beliefs of Bach’s contemporaries in one of the master’s most transformative and canonical expressions.