Bach’s St John Passion is perhaps not quite as often performed as the St Matthew, is arguably gloomier overall but has highly charged dramatic passages, which a reduced Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and a large Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus brought to life. Playing on modern instruments (with one exception) at modern concert pitch, this was a satisfying performance. A relatively short work (a little under two hours – no more than your average movie), it was played through with just a short pause between Parts One and Two. The conductor, Stephen Layton, and the soloists were brought in from England with the exception of leading Australian soprano Sara Macliver. All brought fine singing and dramatic intensity to their parts.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

The Baroque-sized orchestra worked well with the opening ritornello, but the 70-strong choir sounded somewhat overloud and muffled when they joined in. They improved by leaps and bounds however as the work, progressed, demonstrating excellent discipline and sensitivity, evident in the first chorale (“O große Lieb”) and all subsequent ones. They reached a culmination in “In meines Herzens Grunde”, all too short, with a caressing delivery of the last line and, after the Evangelist, dramatically enacting the soldiers fighting over Christ’s tunic.

The Evangelist, the backbone of the work who carries the narrative through to the end was sung by Gwilym Bowen with clarity and accuracy of tone and dramatic commitment. Laurence Williams sang Jesus with a resonant bass, convincing low notes and a similar sense of drama. Contralto Jess Dandy does not have a large voice and occasionally failed to rise above the orchestra quite, but her voice has a lovely warm tone with great legato and she sang with evident feeling. “Es ist vollbracht” was a tour de force, with real attack in the Vivace section, and accompanied by Laura Vaughan’s plangent viola da gamba. Macliver is a stalwart of Australian Baroque singing, and continues to retain an extraordinary crystalline purity combined with accurate sparkling coloratura which soars above the accompaniment; “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” was a moment of shining beauty, with virtuosic flute accompaniment (Douglas Mackie, Lloyd Hudson). In the soprano arioso “Zerfleiße, mein Herze”, with its flute and oboe d’amore obbligato, the high voice cut through the mourning to announce the death of Christ to the wider world.

The other tenor on this occasion was Ruairi Bowen, also a nice clear voice with a good ring at the top. “Erwäge wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” was a highlight with lovely floated high notes, viola/continuo accompaniment and rather mysterious words. Pilate/Petrus was sung by Michael Craddock, a more baritonal bass who also sang with warmth and a sense of drama.

Layton’s management of the narrative through the lead up to and the carrying out of the crucifixion was extraordinary in the best sense of the feeling of we-were-there. At the end of the work, a sustained silence was succeeded by very warm applause.