If the opening chorus of Bach’s St. John Passion took to legato, eschewing punch, there certainly was power throughout “Lord, our ruler, Whose fame in every land is glorious!” More orchestra to enrich this stirring prediction of what was to come seemed in order. With Saturday evening’s performance by Emmanuel Music under the direction of Ryan Turner came a good dose of artistry. In his program notes, John Harbison writes, the Gospel of John “presents a transcendent, mystical, philosophical Jesus…” With some exceptions, this certainly was not Emmanuel’s idea of Bach’s setting of scripture with additional poetic text.
At first, with tenor Matthew Anderson, it appeared that the part of the Evangelist hit the exact right tone. But like the entire concept of Emmanuel’s interpretation of this Bach, wide mood swings over nearly two hours took a toll on the storytelling. There should have been more of Anderson’s ever attractive pure-throated cardinal-like voice, such as on Peter’s chromatic melisma on “wept bitterly” and less clipped phrases such as “Then they led Jesus before Caiaphas in front of the judgement hall.” His German enunciation was absolutely clear as a bell.
The full voice of Dana Whiteside as Jesus was at its best role playing with reverent yet firm “Shall I not drink the cup, which My Father has given to Me? Midway, he sings “Siehe, das is deine Mutter!” (Behold, this is your mother!), emphatically stressing das or “this.” Why such emphasis?
The mob scenes such as “Away, away with Him, crucify Him!” that cry out for intensifying the plot were too similar in effect, agitated, loud, and fast; the often clear contrapuntal textures, while vocally and instrumentally adept, went for the moment rather than building toward a central climax in this Good Friday oratorio. The earlier chorus, the extremely fast “Crucify, crucify!” dizzied.
In the oratorio’s denouement comes, “Rest well…and bring me also to peace.” The Emmanuel chorus blended beautifully, sweetly, its first real respite from this highly extroverted performance. Unfortunately, that peaceful state so appealing and so needed lasted for only a short while. “Ruht wohl” eventually wound up in constant flux. The chorales often turned their focus from harmony to word painting and from all those present as participant believers to observers of music-making.
Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore stood alone as one of a number of soloists, this, on account of her reflective delivery of the aria, “To untie me from the knots of my sins.” Her poised lyricism upheld a genuine spiritual theme, her innocent timbre transported.
The continuo of Michael Beattie, organ, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, supported the recitatives to perfection. Working tightly together, their playing offered fulfilment well beyond merely acting as accompaniment.
Basses Paul Max Tipton as Pilate and Bradford Gleim as Peter adopted operatic stances for their respective parts contributing reliably to director Turner’s resolve of an outgoing Bach-St. John. Sopranos Roberta Anderson and Brenna Wells delivered sweetness in higher ranges. Krista River sang the alto aria “It is finished” to lute and viola da gamba with Laura Jeppesen on the latter. Touching phrasings from River and Jeppesen, though, were on the verge of evaporating with the extremely slow tempo.
Jonas Budris announced ear-catching long-held tenor notes on “Erwäge” or “Consider” (“how His blood-stained back in every aspect is like Heaven”). Frank Kelly’s tenor aria, “Alas, my conscience, where will you flee at last,” was full of urgency, his “Meiner Missetat” (“my misdeed”) reiterations wowed. Bradford Gleim, tenor, and chorus followed in the spirit of the chilling introductory tremolos on the cello with low growling organ stops.
The orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music under baton-less Ryan Turner impressed with their vast control over the plethora of notes Bach composed. Sustainability was another matter. Perhaps less attention to detail would allow for more of the drama to play out.
The thundering ovations seemed appropriate for Emmanuel’s concert-like performance. I wondered what the response would have been had the St. John Passion taken a philosophical, mystical turn. There might have been an awesome silence following the final cadence.
The program booklet with the German text and English translation is a keeper.