Brecon Baroque Festival: Bach's St John Passion

Brecon Baroque Festival: Bach’s St John Passion

Brecon Cathedral, 23 October 2015

J.S. Bach – St John Passion (1724)

Brecon Baroque: leader Rachel Podger
Choirs of Brecon Cathedral

Conducted by Mark Duthie

Evangelist – Nils Giebelhausen / Christus – Nicholas Gedge
Alison Hill / Robin Blaze / Giles Underwood

 

Earlier this month, on October 7, Rachel Podger became the tenth recipient – and the first woman – to be awarded the highly prestigious Bach Prize at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is Micaela Comberti Chair of Baroque Violin. The annual award recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to J.S Bach performance and/or scholarship. Needless to say, following a lifetime of dedication, Bach remains the cornerstone of Podger’s exquisite artistry. In June, she led a joint RAM/Juilliard School venture which included a concert of Bach’s music in Leipzig as part of the city’s 2015 Bachfest. How fitting, then, that her very own Brecon Baroque Festival should celebrate its tenth anniversary this year with a focus on Bach, and on Leipzig in particular, where the mature Bach wrote some of his greatest works.

Rachel Podger. Credit: Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger. Credit: Jonas Sacks

Bach was Cantor in Leipzig for 27, sometimes stormy, always hard-pressed, years between 1723 and 1750. The first major event for which he was tasked with producing music was Good Friday, 1724, when the resulting St John Passion was performed in liturgical sequence as part of a church service. In Brecon, nearly 300 years later, the piece launched Podger’s festival at the town’s cathedral – which happens to be dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Perhaps the chamber instrumental ensemble and somewhat larger church choir gathered on this occasion might reflect the scale of forces available to Bach in Leipzig – although the great man would no doubt be stunned by the modern players’ virtuosity.* At any rate, Podger’s exceptional Brecon Baroque players (here comprising double flutes and oboes, with bassoon, minimal strings and organ continuo) were joined with admirable spirit by the 43-strong Choirs of Brecon Cathedral, including local schoolchildren, and an array of superb soloists of varying international experience and renown.

It is the Evangelist who bears the greatest burden in the St John as narrator of Jesus’s harrowing journey to the cross, which Christians seem to find so paradoxically liberating. The ambivalence lies at the heart of Bach’s magnificent, oratorio-like drama which, through a succession of recitatives and arias, choruses, chorales and quick-fire exchanges, ultimately views the crucifixion through the lens of Christ’s joyfully anticipated resurrection. The tenor, Nils Giebelhausen, proved ardently capable in what is an extremely demanding, exposed role; only occasionally showing signs of vocal pushing as he guided the ‘congregation’ from the pulpit through nearly two hours of highly charged, descriptive story-telling – and sang the contrastingly plaintive tenor arias from the floor to boot.

Giebelhausen was ably supported with brisk pace-setting from the conductor, Mark Duthie, Brecon cathedral’s organist and choral director, who steered the choral sections with unassuming skill and a clear sense of direction. In places there were hints of inflexibility, where greater looseness of tempo would have helped articulate Bach’s dense polyphony and finely calibrated emotions; there was untidy haste, for example, in ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ and the final chorus, ‘Ruht wohl’, intended as a balm. However, this is a minor quibble. Overall, the performance had a stirring combination of devotional pathos and earthy brio, and the choir sang with combined accuracy and fervour. Indeed, it would have been wonderful to hear them in their true substance, perhaps raised by some means above the height of the ensemble, which they had no choice but to stand behind in the cathedral’s slender nave.

The other soloists were well-matched in the acoustic and sang with zeal. Nicholas Gedge – who grew up in Brecon, where Podger has lived for some fifteen years – brought grave dignity to the role of Jesus, balanced by the imperiousness of his fellow bass, Giles Underwood, who emerged in Part II to sing a blood-freezing Pilate and contrasting, soulful ariosos.

As good as these were, the high points came at places of especially intense vocal and instrumental interaction, as countertenor, Robin Blaze, and soprano, Alison Hill, took turns to deliver some ravishing arias, each one accompanied by a different combination of woodwind and strings. Throughout, the ensemble, led by Podger on baroque violin and viola d’amore, played with pellucid feeling for Bach’s harmonic shifts and suspensions. Blaze, currently impressing in Welsh National Opera’s Orlando, interwove lovely ornamentation with the delicate oboes in ‘Von der Stricken’ and, together with Alison McGillivray’s consummately mournful cello, brought the work to its wrenching climax at ‘Es ist vollbracht!’. Meanwhile, Hill and the two flutes made a sound to soften the very stones of the building in her first aria, ‘Ich folge dir’; oboe was added for Part II’s keening ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ at the death of Christ.

If only Bach had written more for these solo vocal parts in his subsequent revisions of the work. But, for all the adverse comparison to 1727’s lengthier, more intellectually weighty St Matthew Passion – not to mention more recent controversies regarding supposed anti-Semitism in the libretto** – Bach’s St John Passion remains one of the great pinnacles of the sacred canon. Surely fewer openings anywhere can match the sustained hair-raising of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ which, in its combined immediacy and layered, theological tension, throws down the expressive gauntlet for the ensuing drama. Brecon Baroque stayed true to both aspects – and presented the work in a community context which made it all the more intimate and inclusive.

 

* In 1730, Bach ruefully observed of the professional musicians supplied by Leipzig Town Council: ‘Modesty forbids me to   speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge. Nevertheless it must be remembered that they are partly emeriti and partly not at all in such exercitio as they should be.’

** Richard Taruskin, for example, has condemned the St John for portraying the Jews alone as guilty of deicide, although Michael Marissen has pointed to evidence that Bach did nothing to emphasise any anti-Judaic sentiment in the original text, which is of unclear authorship, but based on the Gospel According to St John, 18-19.

 

The final Brecon Baroque Festival concert takes place tonight, at Theatr Brycheiniog, 7pm, with a performance by the Brecon Baroque Festival and South Powys Youth Orchestras of J.S. Bach, Telemann and Pisendel.

Header photo: Brecon Baroque.