Last night I went to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a performance of the St John Passion by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales under the direction of John Butt. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, so you can listen to it for the next month on the BBC iplayer.
The St John Passion is on a smaller scale than Bach’s other (later) setting of the same story, the epic St Matthew Passion, being almost an hour shorter and composed for a single orchestra and choir; the St Matthew Passion has two choirs and two orchestras. The St John Passion is nevertheless a very dramatic work, with many contrasts: moments of intimacy expressed by solo voices lie in between grand chorales and orchestral interludes.
A few things struck me particularly in what was a very enjoyable concert. The first was the fine performance by tenor Gwilym Bowen as a rather boyish-looking but earnest Evangelist, a very demanding role. It’s interesting that the part of Jesus is so much more limited, though it was very well sung by David Soar (bass). Other solo vocalists were Elizabeth Watts (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), Nick Pitched (tenor) and Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), as well as some members of the chorus.
The BBC National Chorus of Wales was in fine voice. Outnumbering the orchestra by a considerable margin they managed to generate a wonderful sonority without losing the ‘bite’ that this piece demands. This of all stories needs more than a pretty sound from the choir.
Another thing that struck me watching the orchestra was the phenomenal work of the principal bass, David Stark. He was constantly at work, adding the bottom notes to the accompaniment of the recitative as well as providing the foundation of the string section in the full orchestra. I hadn’t realised before quite how much the double bass had to do in this piece. I was close enough to see the density of ink on his score!
The orchestra for the St John Passion is relatively small but it’s used very cleverly by Bach. For example, there are several sections in which he uses two solo instruments whose melodic lines intertwine. Pairs of flutes, oboes, cellos and violins all perform in this way at different times to wonderful effect. There is also a bassoon which, for this performance, was located among the strings rather than with the flutes and oboes.
With a piece like this it’s difficult not to reflect on the subject matter as well as the music. I’m not a religious man, but I don’t think you have to be a believer to appreciate that the power of the story of the Passion is its universality. By that I mean that it demonstrates the capacity we humans have to inflict pain and suffering on each other. It also reminds us that one day we too will die. All we can hope is that it does not come in such an agonising way as it did for Jesus, but we all know it is going to happen. As Herodotus put it: “Call no man happy until he knows the manner of his death”.
I don’t believe that ultimate hope for humanity lies in any kind of supernatural intervention, but that we have to make it on our own salvation in the here and now. That’s all there is. On the other hand, any species that could produce Johan Sebastian Bach can’t be entirely beyond redemption, can it?Follow @telescoper