Nothing happens in the United States these days without a political subtext, not even a performance of a musical masterpiece composed nearly 300 years ago. The Cleveland Orchestraʼs decision to buttress its performance of Bachʼs Saint John Passion with a panel discussion about the workʼs anti-Semitic undertone reverberated all the way to London.

First and more importantly, the music. No fan of period instruments or historically informed performances, Music Director Franz Welser-Möst opted to stage the piece with a chamber-sized orchestra playing modern instruments, a mix of classical and Baroque soloists, and a chamber version of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, still rather large at 56 members. The only significant nod to early music was a viola da gamba placed prominently at the front of the stage for the second half of the concert, which began with the chorale “Christus, der uns selig macht”.

Welser-Möstʼs strengths were also on prominent display. Well-regarded as both a symphonic and opera conductor, his pacing and execution in complicated vocal works are impeccable, with notably seamless breaks and transitions in this performance. It was clear why he is a favorite among singers, providing plenty of space and lustrous support. The instrumentation for the continuos was at times sublime, and his arrangement of the instruments inspired, with the lead cello positioned in the rear of the orchestra between the harpsichord and portative organ. Principal cellist Mark Kosower, using Baroque bowing techniques and tasteful touches of vibrato, anchored the music beautifully throughout the entire evening.

Alas, Welser-Möstʼs strengths were also the most deleterious part of the performance. He is by nature a Viennese classicist, and had this been a program of Brahms, Beethoven or even lighter Richard Strauss, it would have been superb. But Bach is not a Romantic, and playing his music that way makes it sound like a surface gloss, not a deep reading. The problem with that approach was most apparent in the chorales, which were relentlessly bright and cheerful. There was a bit of bite in the mob exchanges with Pontius Pilate, but otherwise it was high-volume church music lacking any dramatic flair. 

There were also technical problems, notably with the pitch center in the first half, which the harpsichord and organ could never seem to agree on. This appeared to befuddle the singers at times, in particular soprano Lauren Snouffer, who never quite got on track with the famous aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”. 

The vocal standout of the evening was Maximilian Schmitt as the Evangelist. A commanding and intelligent tenor, he carried the narrative and dominated the singing, ignoring the technical snafus. Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams was a serviceable Jesus, with excellent technique but not much impact in his delivery. Michael Sumuel made the most of the relatively small part given to Pontius Pilate, his bass-baritone immediately authoritative and fearsome. Countertenor Iestyn Davies was radiant in combination with a continuo of keyboards and light strings, a showing unfortunately not matched by tenor Nicholas Phan, who was outshone by glowing combinations of woodwinds and strings. 

Offstage, the St John Passion has been the subject of debate for a long time, and it is to the Cleveland Orchestraʼs credit that it faced the anti-Semitic question head-on, with a panel that included two academics, a rabbi and Welser-Möst. The event was planned long before the recent spike in hate crimes against Jewish cemeteries and community centers in the US, but even by coincidence, it came at a propitious moment. In the current atmosphere, the issue almost has to be addressed.

For many reasons, there are no clear or simple answers to the racial questions the piece poses. Politics aside, itʼs worth noting that Bach took his text straight from the Bible, and was certainly more concerned about his duties as a Kappellmeister than political sensitivities three centuries hence. Above all, the fact that his St John Passion is still being performed is testimony to its enduring beauty, power and ability to lift hearts and minds far beyond earthly concerns.