Lenten music-making in Oslo was this year characterised by two high-profile presentations of Bach’s St John Passion, the second of which was performed by the Oslo Philharmonic and The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, under the experienced baton of Herbert Blomstedt. While technically sound – impressively so, in some parts – Thursday’s concert lacked the real emotional depth that this work so clearly demands.

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin UK Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin UK Lengemann

Not aided by the infamous acoustics of the building or a slightly too present pulse in the bass, The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir was initially rather obscured by the orchestra, and their cries of “Herr! Herr! Herr!” lacked the despair-laden intensity that is needed to set this great ship on its course. They did find their voice, however, with wonderful balance. Mocking sopranos greeting the King of the Jews and disdainfully zealous tenors denouncing Jesus were highlights, but it all lacked the frenzied mob mentality that would have made their interventions truly dramatic.

Tenor Andrew Staples gave a very polished performance as the Evangelist, as well as in the tenor arias – his phrasing in “Erwäge” was exceptional – but it seemed to be at the expense of real engagement with the text. The notes were very pretty and they were in the right places, but this was not a particularly gripping narration. Although not an inappropriate quality for the role, the stoicism of Peter Harvey as Jesus Christ was generally rather too impenetrable for my liking. A notable exception to this was after the crucifixion, when Harvey imbued the address to Mary and the beloved disciple with real pathos. 

Their co-soloists did not fare much better. Soprano Elizabeth Watts sounded strangely panicked in her two arias, and she seemed to lose control of her higher register in “Zerfliesse, mein Herze”, making for uncomfortable listening. Marianne Beate Kielland’s mezzo-soprano did not shine in “Von den Stricken”; she had a tendency to fade prematurely at the ends of phrases. Her “Es ist vollbracht” was more steadfast, and despite sounding too matter-of-fact for a lament for the death of Christ, this was the best-sung aria of the night. I was quite mystified as to why bass Krešimir Stražanac was singing along with the choir throughout – if it was to warm up, it does not explain why his “Betrachte, mein Seel’” started off-key.

Unexpectedly, the soloists taken from the choir to sing the smaller roles impressed far more than those who sang the arias. The best and the most memorable was Eirik Krokfjord as a stentorian Pilate, and I was so pleased that he, along with Olle Holmgren as Peter, brought some genuine emotion to the recitative text.

If the singing left me wanting more, then the orchestra at least was on fine form with Herbert Blomstedt at the helm. Blomstedt’s first engagement with the Oslo Philharmonic was an incredible 57 years ago, and he was chief conductor between 1962-67. A perennial favourite with Konserthuset-goers, the deeply religious Blomstedt showed no sign of being mere months away from his 90th birthday, his devotion translating into gracefully precise gestures and an electric stage presence from which performers and audience alike benefited.

Although sadly uncredited in the programme, the core continuo players were commendably constant in quality, and succeeded where the singers failed by adding nuance. I am able to name one of them, and that is the orchestra’s lead cellist Louisa Tuck, who as usual was both steadfast and a joy to listen to. Tuck brings intensity and passion to each performance, and the orchestra is lucky to have her. Violas d’amore – played by the first desk of violas – and viola da gamba brought colour to the obbligato arias, and combined beautifully with the sinewy theorbo during “Betrachte, mein Seel’” and “Erwäge”.

The word ‘passion’ in this, its original context, denotes suffering and endurance. This is certainly evident in the text, but it was such a shame that the performers did not bring this out to the fullest extent. St John Passion is by no means a short work, and I left the auditorium with the feeling that it was the audience, rather than the performers, who most keenly felt the endurance.