Bach’s St John Passion operates on two parallel timescales. There is the urgency of human time – the action in the Passion story fills less than a day, and also the slow purposefulness of heavenly time. Under the direction of Harry Bicket, Royal Northern Sinfonia and Chorus and a fine line-up of soloists moved effortlessly between the Passion’s two time frames, bringing a new perspective on a piece I thought I knew very well.

Harry Bicket © Dario Acosta
Harry Bicket
© Dario Acosta

The opening chorus is a microcosm of the Passion universe: the surging waves in the orchestra set up the fast-moving human time, whilst the choir invokes God’s eternal purpose; and what happens during these first few minutes is key to the rest of the performance. Bicket started the orchestra  firmly, before pulling back and letting the tension mount before a magnificent entry from the chorus, and this pattern continued throughout the evening, particularly in the chorales. From their first entry, the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia delivered some of the best singing I’ve heard from them recently: the text throughout was punchy and well-articulated, the parts were well balanced, so that the fugal subjects and melodic motifs bouncing around through the parts were always clear.

Tenor Joshua Ellicott did his job as Evangelist with panache, drawing us into the story with his gorgeous colourings of the text and ringing high notes. Time stood still completely when Ellicott spun out the long flow of notes that depict Peter’s tears, before he had to switch role and mood to sing the tenor aria “Ach mein Sinn”, in which he delivered an extraordinary depiction of unhinged grief. By contrast, the other tenor aria, “Erwage”, which looks back through time to God’s promise of grace given after the Flood, was lyrical with beautifully sustained long notes.

Through Jesus’ trial, the chorus became horribly human, with quiet menace in the priests’ “Wir dürfen niemand töten”, through to a “Kreuzige”, that had me quailing in terror before its ferocious rage. In these complicated choruses and in the simple chorales, Bicket paid attention to every nuance in both choir and orchestra, and you could see him shaping these details in his conducting as well as hearing them in the music. There was also good singing from the chorus members who stepped out for the small solos, particularly Peter Carey’s Pilatus.

Against the anger of the priests and the mob, Mark Stone’s Christus stood separate, untouched by the mob, delivering his lines with a rich, resonant tone, and the bloom on the higher notes when he sang the line “my kingdom is not of this world” made it clear that Jesus is part of the eternal time. Like Ellicott, he also had to manage character changes for the bass arias. “Betrachte meine Seele”, with a lovely bassoon line and violin duet was a brief moment of eternal peace, whereas in “Eilt, Eilt” he created a real urgency, supported by surging darkness in the middle strings and a quick delicacy in the upper violins.

The two arias each for soprano also pair with each time-frame. Countertenor James Hall had a light, clean tone with particularly good high notes, although from my seat, he was slightly overpowered by the oboes and bassoon in “Von den Stricken”, but it could also be that I was just paying more attention to the very expressive playing from the winds. For “Es ist Vollbracht”, however, he stepped into the eternal with his poised stillness, and stayed there with barely a gear change through the triumphant heroism of the central section, accompanied by fizzing strings, before shifting smoothly back to stillness and a deep sense that Christ’s human role has been quietly, but successfully brought to a close.

Louise Alder © Gerard Collett
Louise Alder
© Gerard Collett

Soprano Louise Alder was delightfully light in her ‘human’ aria, tripping through the high notes of “Ich folge dich gleichfalls”, with a big smile and elegant phrasing. Her other, “Zerfließe, mein Herze” was a revelation to me, as I’ve always imagined the singer here to be one the women who follow Jesus. Alder sang it with an ethereal but very serious beauty, and with the haunting mixture of cor anglais (in this modern instrument version) and flute, it struck me that perhaps this aria is a compassionate angel, who understands why Jesus must die, but who still weeps with his human friends.

The chorus “Lasset uns denn nicht zerteilen”, in which soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes shows ordinary life continuing, and the energy of this chorus prepared a nice contrast for Bicket’s flowing “Ruht wohl”, in which time rolls ever onwards towards an eternity that is almost too much for the human soul to contemplate. Bach allows us a tiny glimpse of it though in the ecstatic final chorale “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein”, which at the end of this evening’s performance moved me more deeply than ever before.

*****