St John Passion review – Britten Sinfonia deliver no sermons, but plenty of feeling

Barbican, London
Mark Padmore resurrected the role of Evangelist in an experimental staging of Bach’s choral masterpiece that included compelling readings by Simon Russell Beale

Bach performed his St John Passion four times between 1724 and 1749, and on each occasion it was somewhat different, with sections included or left out. Nowadays, as with his other major choral works, interpretations come in all shapes and sizes. Large-scale performances with big choirs and orchestras, though, are a good deal rarer than they once were, while the once-preposterous idea – first floated in 1981 by the Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin – that the composer intended only one singer to undertake each of the individual vocal lines has been widely taken up.

For its Good Friday performance, the Britten Sinfonia fielded 18 instrumentalists and a choir of 12. The use of modern instruments, however, led to some of the individual voices not quite cutting through the texture in the all-important solo arias.

The enterprise’s lynchpin was the tenor Mark Padmore, once again a distinguished exponent of the role of the Evangelist, who holds the work together with his extensive Biblical narration. As always, Padmore’s minute focus on the text made his account compelling, and his distinctive tone colours unerringly matched the piece’s emotional depth; but on this occasion, the top of his voice sounded constricted.

Two of the tenor arias were allotted to the spirited Daniel Auchincloss, but Padmore’s workload was still heavy, taking on the tenor line in the chorales and choruses, as well as his solo duties. He also directed the entire performance – in tandem with the Britten Sinfonia’s leader, Jacqueline Shave – cueing the forces with the lightest of gestures, no more than an occasional nod or the raising of a finger.

Simon Russell Beale, far left, contributed readings of TS Eliot, Psalm 22 and St John’s Gospel.
Simon Russell Beale, far left, contributed readings of TS Eliot, Psalm 22 and St John’s Gospel. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Though an appealing idea, the lack of more determined direction led to some loss of definition, especially in the more complex choruses representing the antagonistic crowd, and at the points when the notes in the orchestral parts came particularly thick and fast.

On Good Friday in 1724, the work was performed for the first time in a Leipzig church as part of a service incorporating a sermon and additional pieces of musical liturgy. As a small closing gesture at the Barbican, Jacob Handl’s austere motet Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus was heard, as it would have been almost 300 years ago – incidentally providing some of the most finely achieved choral singing of the evening.

This was the only sung piece in which the actor (and one-time chorister) Simon Russell Beale joined. His main function was to offer readings to replace the 18th-century sermon – the opening verses of chapter one of St John’s Gospel, Psalm 22, and TS Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday – something he managed with consummate understatement and discretion.

The other soloists – who also made up the remaining 11 members of the Britten Sinfonia Voices, trained by Eamonn Dougan – were of variable quality, though all three of the baritones and basses (Tim Dickinson’s weighty Christus, Ben Rowarth’s sturdy Peter and Dougan’s more ambiguous Pilate) made notably telling dramatic contributions.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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