Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.
Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.
In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.
Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.