“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensly; more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein's words at the start of the evening, when Ruben Jais began proceedings by dedicating the performance to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels and invited us to stand for a minute's silence. It was also a timely reminder of the contemporary appeal of Bach's music, particulary his St John Passion, which confronts us with the stark reality of humanity, exploring themes of violence, evil, betrayal, but ultimately the triumph of love.

Ruben Jais and La Barocca © Giovanni Hanninen
Ruben Jais and La Barocca
© Giovanni Hanninen

Instantly striking from a visual point of view, was the layout of the stage. Rather than placing the singers in a traditional choral format, sopranos and altos were placed on the far left, with tenors and basses on the far right. From an aural point of view, this produced a rather interesting effect, serving to highlight the intricacy of Bach's choral counterpoint with the vocal lines emerging from different places. Initially I was worried that this might lead to a lack of ensemble in the choruses, however I should not have worried as the choir always sang as a single instrument, each voice perfectly in time with the others. This was particularly impressive in what was one of the highlights of the evening, the bass aria, “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen”, which contains intricate choral interjections. It was taken at an excitingly fast tempo. Baritone Renato Dolcini characterised this aria admirably, bringing out the urgency of the text, delivering it with an appropriate degree of nervous energy.

Despite the tightness of the choir and the beauty of their sound, I was left disappointed in some of the more angry choruses. The job of the chorus is often to play the part of the mocking, taunting and angry crowd or mob. Many of these parts need to be sung with venom, although this was rarely achieved, particularly in choruses such as “Weg, weg”, where the words demand to be spat out. In the chorus “Sei gegrüßet”, the choir mocks the king-like status of Jesus. The words need to be sung in such a way that it sounds like they are taunting Jesus. Although sung very precisely, the text lacked the required nastiness. Instead, many of these choruses were over-characterised, rather than being driven by the drama inherent in the text.

The pick of the soloists was the Evangelist, sung by Partick Grahl, who also sang the tenor arias. He delivered the text with an effortless ease, his voice never seeming to tire, the high notes blooming as if they were the most natural thing to sing. The text was also well paced and characterised – he never wallowed, but instead allowed the narrative to flow at its natural pace. However, it was slighty distracting that the continuo section did not always keep up with him. Often, particularly in faster moving passages, chords were placed slightly late, although this improved as the performance developed.

Conductor Ruben Jais gave a very thoughtful interpretation overall, an almost academic account of the work. Every line was shaped and the dynamic of every phrase had clearly been given a lot of thought. For my taste though, it was almost overthought; the music needed to speak for itself more. Much of the St John Passion is chamber music, particularly the arias, which often feature a solo voice, perhaps a couple of flutes of violins and continuo. Jais chose to conduct these arias, to control every nuance. The music might have had more freedom if he had allowed the musicians to react off one another more. Sometimes, he waited too long between movements, many of which flow into each other with a natural rhythm. Sometimes this sense of being too much in control robbed the musicians of being able to be as expressive as they might have been, particularly in the arias “Es ist vollbracht” and “Zerfließe, mein Herze”, which were taken too fast and lacked the space they required. Having said that, the highlights were often the more expressive choral moments, particularly the final chorus “Ruht wohl”, which was shaped admirably.

Bach chooses not to end the work with this chorus however, but on a note of tremendous optimism with a chorale which, in the light of recent terrible events, must have resonated with a good deal of the audience. “Wake me then from death, so that my eyes see you in all joy.” To return to Bernstein's quote, Bach's vision in his music is surely a fitting response to violence.