“In the beginning was the Word”. Literally, for we began with spoken words, the actor Nakhane reading the opening of St John’s Gospel up to “and the darkness comprehended it not”. Then we were swept into that darkness, the swirling string semiquavers, the driving bass, the stabbing suspensions from flutes and oboes, that launch the greatest nine minutes in Bach, prelude to a great human and cosmological drama, superbly performed. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its hand-picked chorus needed no conductor, musical direction shared between tenor Mark Padmore and leader Margaret Faultless. There was high intensity from the start, still more at the repeat.

Mark Padmore
© Zen Grisdale

“Chorus” is perhaps a misnomer for this group of 13 singers, since they shared solo duties also. All were very good, the young women especially fine. In the two early arias both mezzo Bethany Horak-Hallett in “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” and soprano Rowan Pierce in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” were sweet in sound and sensitive to text. Jessica Cale’s “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” was a keening response to Jesus’s death. In “Es ist vollbracht” mezzo Helen Charlston’s account had a weightiness suggesting that this was not just a human death but a destiny fulfilled.

Gerald Finley
© Zen Grisdale

The turba choruses were turbulent, not least in the scenes with Pilate, even if they can have greater impact with a slightly larger body of singers which does not have to be socially distanced. Neal Davies was an excellent Pilate here and in his tense exchanges with the outstanding Christus of Gerald Finley. St John’s Gospel and Bach’s work focus on the sovereignty of Jesus; “My kingdom is not of this world,” he explains, and neither at times was Finley’s singing, with rich focussed tone and effortless authority, an uncanny portrait of the divine in mortal guise.

But this was the Gospel according to St Mark Padmore, who conceived this presentation with its readings, directed it, sang in the chorus, and was an Evangelist as fine as ever. The voice has not changed that much over the years, and he manages the high tessitura now with great skill, in a way that adds to the expression. His vocal acting had notable immediacy; this man had just come straight from Golgotha, where he witnessed events so momentous he was compelled to recount them at once.

Nakhane and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© Zen Grisdale

The remaining two readings, replacing the interval sermon, were Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”) and the first section of T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, ending “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death”. Nakhane’s intelligent reading worked admirably. The other addition came after the Bach, where the funeral motet of Jacob Händl Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus was sung as it was in 18th-century Leipzig. The OAE members, so expert in the authentic colours various instruments had brought to the arias, now joined in singing the motet.

Some viewers would have been confused by these additions which were not announced at the outset, nor in any digital programme note. (I have drawn on material from a performance of this version from the Barbican in 2017). Grant Gee’s filming was involving, and the dilapidated red ochre walls of the performing space made a suitably sepulchral backdrop.

This performance was reviewed from the OAE Player video stream, also on Marquee TV

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