The Oslo International Church Music Festival has a distinctly Germanic tinge this year. The customary Handel oratorios have been eschewed in favour of vocal works by Bach and Telemann, all in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This year’s festival started with the rarely heard 1725 version of Bach’s St John Passion, performed by the German Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and Ensemble with their conductor and founder Thomas Hengelbrock. This version features some additional arias, but its most noticeable features are the opening and final choruses, both different from the customary 1739-1749 version. Although Daniel Behle and Michael Nagy impressed as the Evangelist and Christ, respectively, the remaining soloists, all taken from the choir, were of slightly more variable quality.
The choir sang with a highly well-blended sound and remarkably clean intonation in the chorales but, throughout, they struggled with balance. The sopranos sounded slightly anaemic and were always a touch too soft, even in louder sections, which made the melody difficult to discern. Still, the choir showed an acute awareness of the text along with beautiful phrasing. They were also remarkably alert, the many direct transitions between recitative and chorus bursting with energy.
The Balthasar-Neumann-Chor supplies its own soloists, and for this St John Passion its members took on the arias and recitatives not sung by the Evangelist or Christ. The choral soloists were something of a mixed bag, but a few stood out as truly excellent. In “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”, soprano Gerlinde Sämann sang with a beautifully light, agile voice, throwing in some very charming ornaments in the final da capo section of the aria. Her soprano colleague Katja Stuber, however, did not fare as well, with mysterious intonation in her aria “Zerfließe, mein Herze”, at times being a whole tone out of tune.
Tenor Hermann Oswald was memorably dramatic in Simon Peter’s aria “Zerschmettert mich, ihr Felsen”, one of the 1725 additions, although his theatricalities often came at the expense of pitch. Bass Manfred Bittner’s ornaments were quickly glossed over as he sang the aria “Himmel reiße, Welt erbebe”, but the soprano chorale in the background was remarkably in tune. Still, Bittner impressed as a stentorian Pilate, singing his recitatives in the aisle, facing the choir. Stepping in for the indisposed countertenor Carlos Mena, Anne Bierwirth sang “Es ist vollbracht”, lamenting the death of Christ with endlessly beautiful tragedy, coupled with almost regal steadfastness.
As the Evangelist, Daniel Behle delivered a forceful narration of the sufferings of Christ, matter-of-factly, almost careful at first, but soon becoming increasingly emotional. As he sang of the rooster crowing at Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus, he was snarling with rage. This was no objective retelling of the Gospel of John, but rather, Behle used the text for all it was worth, filling it with rage, pity and sorrow. As Christ, Michael Nagy sang with an understated stoicism, letting the text and his voice speak for themselves. Although his bottom register tended to get lost, he sang beautifully, ending on a remarkably understated “Es ist vollbracht”.
The Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble specialises in historically informed performance, and was founded to support the choir. Indeed, their playing seemed especially attentive to the singers, although I would have liked some more aggression to contrast the smoothness of the chorales. Still, there was a lot of very creditable playing, especially from the solo flutes and oboes in the many obbligato arias. Particularly moving was the sinewy viol playing of Frauke Hess in “Es ist vollbracht”.
Even though some of the solo singing proved rather shaky, this was a deeply touching experience. As the last notes of the final “Christe, du Lamm Gottes” died out, the audience held still for almost a minute before breaking out into thunderous applause. It is only a few weeks until there will be another St John Passion in Oslo, this time with the Oslo Philharmonic. They have a lot to live up to.
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