We distinguish between performances of Bach’s St John Passion by “conductor shorthand”: Gardiner’s or Butt’s or Kuijken’s St John. But what do we call this? Mark Padmore is nominated as Director/Evangelist and Margaret Faultless listed as one of three “Violins 1”. They look to each other at key moments, and the tenor occasionally gives a nod, but podium, stand or baton is there none. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and twelve singers are listed together and share a continuous curve of space, instruments to the left and singers to the right, from an audience perspective. So this is “the OAE’s St John Passion”.

Margaret Faultless leads the OAE
© Zen Grisdale

Bach’s work has been called a “sacred opera” and there is some theatricality in this presentation. As the first choral entry approached after the long and stirring instrumental prelude, the singers, declining to be reduced to mere choristers, stood individually in a choreographed sequence, as they did for the opening to Part Two. Singers advanced from the vocal body towards centre stage for their arias, Jesus going further to sit alongside the violins for his more extended sequences. We can assume though that Padmore, having taken his seat for Part Two, and then getting up again to go backstage in search of his missing Jesus, was necessity not theatricality.

Bach’s work here becomes large scale vocal and instrumental chamber music, for 29 executants. No aria (there are just eight numbers so designated, two with chorus) has the same instrumentation, and the composer threw in some colours near obsolete even in his day. Thus the viola da gamba and oboes da caccia add a piquant visual note to the theatre. That they were as beautifully played as everything else, we could almost take for granted, this being an OAE event.

The OAE and soloists
© Zen Grisdale

The solos were always clearly articulated and effective, and often much more than that. Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy with “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (“From the bonds of my sins”), was rather feeling her way into the score’s first aria, but really excelled in her second, the score’s greatest, “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is fulfilled”), rarely more movingly sung. Mary Bevan’s soprano was as sweet and pure as always and her second aria was especially affecting. That text “Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” (“Dissolve my heart in floods of tears”) can encourage a lachrymose manner, but Bevan’s singing touched us without any mannerism.

Raoul Steffani’s fine Christus was less vocally weighty than the norm, but his agreeable timbre, evenness of production, and the sense that the top and bottom notes really belong to the same voice, was completely persuasive. Jonathan Brown’s impressive Pilate was a more traditional bass sound, authoritative from his first entry – here was a man used to command. Laurence Kilsby’s tenor voice must be one of the most ingratiating of his generation, and it was good to hear the rhythms of “Ach mein Sinn” (“Alas my conscience”) lifted rather than smoothed out. His “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (“Consider how his blood-stained back”) was vocally enthralling throughout its unusual length.

Mary Bevan and the OAE
© Zen Grisdale

Mark Padmore must need all his huge experience to meet the exhausting demands of the Evangelist’s (and Director’s) role so consistently well. His tenor sound continues to impress, as does his line and phrasing with its insight. As ever in this great performance he conveys far more than written reportage from the Gospel. This is a character who has witnessed these tremendous events, and must relay what he has seen. Singing with his colleagues, the chorales and choruses were accomplished but also well differentiated – none more so than the substantial and imposing pillars of this mighty work, the first and last choruses. The opening “Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm” (“Lord, our ruler, whose glory…”) was biting in its attack, as the closing “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” (“Rest in peace, you sacred limbs”) was radiant in its consolation.

As before in an OAE St John Passion, after the Bach the funeral motet of Jacob Händl Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus was sung, as it was in 18th-century Leipzig. The OAE members stood in for the congregation and joined in the singing.