Of Bach’s two surviving Passions, the St John is smaller than the majestic St Matthew, but makes up for it by being the more intensely dramatic and operatic focussing as it does on Christ’s trial. As Bach’s succeeding recitatives, chorales and arias offer up ever-shifting prisms for contemplation, it stands as one of the most heavenly sublimations of the gospel story ever.
Tenor Mark Padmore, for years our superlative evangelist, pondered how this much-loved, almost over-familiar work can ever be heard afresh in a modern, secular age. His brilliant solution was to have compelling actor Simon Russell Beale open with “In the beginning…”, and read from TS Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”, and “Psalm 22”, an engagement of verbal intelligence which chimed perfectly with Bach’s musical insights. Concluding the work, just as Bach did, with Jacob Handl’s meditative motet “Behold how the just man dies”, written 150 years earlier, enriched the context further.
Each moment – collective or individual – was exquisitely characterised by the 12 singers and the Britten Sinfonia, as for example in the desolate “Es ist vollbracht” with alto Eleanor Minney and Reiko Ichise’s viola da gamba. While basses Tim Dickinson made a gravely noble Christ and Eamonn Dougan a sympathetic Pilate, one can only marvel at Padmore’s total command of every inflection in a performance refined to its quintessence. It was one of the most moving realisations I’ve ever heard.