JS Bach’s St John Passion opens with a tremendous 14-bar instrumental prelude in which its driving semiquaver rhythm and clashes in oboes and flutes are as unsettling as the events on Golgotha soon to be narrated. If those clashes from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did not bleat and bite as they can, it was perhaps because conductor Stephen Layton was hurtling through Bach’s stirring G minor turbulence towards its harmonic goal, that first mighty shout of “Herr!”.

From that striking entry on, Polyphony, Layton’s ever-impressive choir, were superb. Conductor and choir presented the choruses and chorales very beautifully, and were particularly impressive in the “turba” sections that are the nearest Bach got to writing opera. The drama never slackened in Layton’s hands, becoming especially intense in the longer Part Two, when antagonism of the vengeful crowd is shown in varied musical exchanges.

Evangelist Nick Pritchard has become one of the best in that crowded trade, always holding a closed copy of the score, doubtless to show he is here to narrate the actions that will fulfil the prophecies in The Book. His singing had convincing authority and pathos, and fine tone. Only when Mary appears by the cross did the sentiment become, well, a touch Marian.

James Rutherford brought to the role of Jesus all the gravitas with which he has invested Wagner’s Wotan and Hans Sachs, both of whom make personal sacrifices for the sake of others; perhaps a Bach Passion is not such a stretch. His vocal dignity is the crucial quality he brought to the role, throughout and not least in the scenes with Pilate.

The soloists formed a strong young team, perhaps as good as can be assembled nowadays. The freshness of voice is always welcome in the most familiar works, when no one is wearied from too many successive seasons of Messiahs and Passions. Helen Charlston is styled mezzo-soprano but sounds like a true alto in her numbers. “Es ist vollbracht” had all the emotional weight such a voice brings and was considerably aided throughout by the cello of Andrew Skidmore and the viola da gamba of Kate Conway. The sweet tones and mellifluous phrasing of soprano Rowan Pierce made a good contrast, ideally matching the two flutes in “Ich folge dir”.

Bass Ashley Riches was commanding in everything Bach asked of him. As Pilate he was a voice of reason, if exasperated at times. His Arioso “Betratchte meine Seel’”, with as slow a tempo as the evening asked of him, was superbly sustained, and his numbers with chorus were well integrated. Tenor Ruairi Bowen is another one to watch, with his noble sound and considerable skill – the angular lines of “Ach mein Sinn” presented him with no problem.

The OAE and Polyphony continue the tradition both groups bring to this greatest work of the European Baroque. I accept that many regard the St Matthew Passion as the greater work, but with the St John Passion in as compelling a performance as this, given without an interval, I am a witness on Golgotha, fearful of what lies ahead. Or I am in Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche on Good Friday 1724, listening to this disturbing new work of our new Kantor – and fearful of what lies ahead. Whether surrounded by lanterns and weapons, or musicians and fellow congregation members, I am deeply involved. With the great St Matthew Passion, I can only ever be an audience member.