Harry Christophers led the Handel & Haydn Society Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus in a dramatic and deeply moving reenactment of Bach’s St. John Passion on Friday at Symphony Hall. The oratorio reprises on Sunday at 3.
The St. John Passion was first performed at St. Nicholas’s Church in Leipzig on Good Friday, 1724. Following traditional practice, the first part, representing the arrest of Jesus and Peter’s denial, was performed at Vespers before the sermon. The second part, performed after the sermon, recounts how Jesus was brought before Pilate the following day, crucified, buried, and mourned. Less well-known than the St. Matthew Passion of 1727, this earlier, more compact account is nonetheless consistently moving. The St. John Passion narrative is taken verbatim from John’s account in the Lutheran Gospel, chapters 18 and 19; (excerpts from Matthew were later removed). Chorale stanzas—preexisting tunes and texts enhanced by Bach’s harmonizations—function as collective commentary on the events. Individual, emotional reaction to Jesus’s suffering appears in the form of solo arias set to devotional poetry by various German writers. Out of these disparate elements Bach (or a collaborator) assembled a coherent sacred drama that reflected current Lutheran practice yet built upon a tradition of Passion representation going back to medieval times. The St. John Passion was subject to several revisions, the last in 1749, a year before Bach’s death, that undid many of the previous changes but called for additional strings and added a contrabassoon (not present in last night’s performance) to the continuo group.
The primary narrator of the Passion story is, of course, the Evangelist, whose reading in the speech-song of minimally-accompanied recitative is enhanced by direct discourse, primarily by Jesus, but also from Peter, Pilate, servants, and a maid, and punctuated by explosive outbursts from the crowd (turba) representing the Jews and the High Priests. British tenor Nicholas Mulroy was the Evangelist. He sang with perfect diction and dramatic sensibility, his restraint throwing the occasional expressive elaborations on such words as “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly) and “geisselte” (scourged) all the more into relief. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook sang the role of Jesus with mellifluous gravity and warm beauty of tone. Although additional singers are often employed for the tenor and bass arias, these were sung by Mulroy and Brook respectively, requiring a shift in character from narrator or active participant to grieving bystander, a role change they both handled convincingly. A highlight of the evening was the bass arioso, “Betrachte, meine Seel” (Ponder, my soul), the jagged intervals of the vocal line accompanied by two muted violins (Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata) and anchored by lute (Paula Chateauneuf) and bass viol (Anthony Manzo) on the continuo. The arioso was followed by the exquisitely rendered tenor aria “Erwäge, wie wie sein blutgefärbte Rücken” (Ponder well how his bloodstained back), with the muted violins leading the ritornello and a nimbly-played viola da gamba (Shirley Hunt) joining the continuo.
Contralto Emily Marvosh shone in the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins), navigating the sinuous entanglements of her melodic line with the utmost clarity against suspended dissonances in the flute and oboe obbligato duet and a steady walking bass. Marvosh’s second aria marked the turning point in the drama with an equally dramatic change of tone. After Jesus declares, in a simple descending line, “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished), an embroidered version of this motif is the basis of a somber duet, Adagio, for contralto and viola da gamba. Suddenly the dark coloring of Marvosh’s mood brightened as singer and orchestral strings mimicked trumpets in the aria’s triumphant conclusion: “Der Held aus Judah siegt mit Macht” (The hero from Judah triumphs in his might).
Sonja DuToit Tengblad was the soprano soloist. Her joyfully tripping “Ich folge Dir gleichfalls” (I follow you likewise) was a delight, as was the interplay of “following” motives in her duet with flute obbligato. Reactions to the Crucifixion and to the devastating earthquake that followed it were depicted in the aria “Zerfliesse mein Herze in Fluten der Zähren” (Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears), an intricate trio with flute (Wendy Rolfe) and oboe da caccia (Stephen Hammer) obbligato parts in which Tengblad showed the strength of her musicianship and the flexibility of her voice.
Under the energetic direction of Harry Christophers, the orchestra of top-notch period instrument players and the chorus of 26 solo singers kept pace with the drama, reinforcing the logical succession of recitatives, arias, and choruses. The choral outbursts from the crowd were particularly effective, and even the contemplative chorales were delivered with intensity. In the opening and closing concerted choruses, Christophers showed his ability to shape phrases continuously and to employ dynamic shading effectively and without undue exaggeration. But one could not help wishing H+H had chosen a more suitable venue for this performance. Symphony Hall is quite simply too big for their forces. The chorus sometimes seemed forced into a shrill vibrato. The continuo sounded weak. From my vantage point midway on the orchestra floor, low notes of most of the soloists were nearly inaudible. Only bass-baritone Woodrow Bynum, stepping out of the chorus to sing the role of Pilate, could be heard throughout his range. This was a pity, considering the hard work, skill, and devotion that went into producing this monumental work.