I’ve had the great privilege and even greater joy over the last couple of months to have been totally immersed in Bach: I’ve been researching him, and particularly his Passions, since Christmas. My immense luck only increased, however, when the inaugural concert at the first ever Bristol Baroque Festival of Music at St George’s was set to be a performance of the St John Passion, given by new-kids-on-the-period-instrument-block ensemble La Nuova Musica. Obviously, I was overjoyed, if this term can be used in connection with music of such gravitas and sombre subject matter as the death and crucifixion of Christ. With research and reviewing coming together so rewardingly, it was with much excitement and anticipation that I awaited the opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher” – for me one of the tensest and most dramatic movements in all music.

Members of La Nuova Musica © La Nuova Musica 2012
Members of La Nuova Musica
© La Nuova Musica 2012

I think I might have done myself and La Nuova Musica a disservice with all that expectation. Sometimes one becomes so familiar with a conception of a piece that when one hears things done differently it’s difficult not to feel a sense of anticlimax. Following findings from recent research into Bach’s original performance forces, La Nuova Musica’s pared-down ensemble (one string player and two singers per part) was bound not to provoke the same awe-inspiration created by the massive forces often used for Bach’s passions. However, the comparative lack of power that a small ensemble can evoke through force of volume notwithstanding, I do think that there were some balance problems in this familiar first chorus. The continuo was rather too prominent in its relentless slow quavers, the upper strings (and later sopranos) with their semiquavers were totally inaudible, and the oboists shied away somewhat from the glorious wailing dissonances that their endlessly entwining lines generate throughout. But despite this underwhelming start, the chorus still communicated the gravity, terseness and looming tragedy of the narrative that was about to begin.

Bach guides us through the passion story in a series of recitatives and turbae choruses, interspersed with reflective solo arias and meditative chorale movements which comment upon the events recounted and outline their significance to Bach’s original listener, the Lutheran Leipzig congregant. The principal storytelling role falls to the Evangelist, here performed tirelessly by the light tenor of Simon Wall, whose voice and expression was perfectly pitched, being both contained and empathetic, throughout his mammoth task of narration. There was a satisfying contrast between Wall’s lyrical lightness and tenor soloist Thomas Herford, whose robust, vigorous (if at time a touch throaty) voice suited the assertive tenor arias. Both basses were excellent, too: James Arthur’s Jesus was rich and assured (as John’s Gospel would have him) and Timothy Dickinson’s aria “Eilt, ihr angefohtenen Seelen” – complete with ethereal interjections from the chorus singers – was superb. Pick of the soloists, though, were soprano August Hebbert, whose crystalline clarity and complete vocal control were particularly beautiful, and alto Ciara Hendrick, whose understatement, subtlety and purity of sound were the perfect match for Bach’s serene lamentations. Indeed, the pinnacle of the performance was the alto aria “Es ist vollbracht!” which directly follows Christ’s death on the cross, and features the extraordinarily mournful sound of an obbligato viola da gamba, heartbreakingly played by Liam Byrne.

On the whole, the instrumentalists matched the singers in their quality, although I felt the continuo was continuously a touch loud, and frequently I thought that the violins were too quiet to be hear. In fact, I was disappointed that the victorious central section of “Es ist vollbracht!”, in which the alto, in a theologically important mood-swing, sounds the trumpet-call of Christ’s resounding victory, was regrettably under-supported in the string parts. However, some excellent obbligato playing in the arias made up for this, though none achieved the expressivity of Byrne’s viola da gamba.

This is a sacred work, and so a concert performance must always feel slightly bizarre – even though this is the only way we hear Bach’s passions nowadays. However, the religious atmosphere of the work was always present in La Nuova Musica’s sober, dedicated and poised performance, in which the drama of the music was evident without being unduly emphasised and “operafied”. Conductor David Bates deserves high praise for achieving this balance: one that is vital for the power, beauty and significance of Bach’s music to be communicated. This success, however, did result in what some might have felt to be an awkward moment at the end of Part 1, in which the involved St George’s audience were loath to destroy the enhanced ambience by applauding: a reluctance entirely to the performers’ credit. It was not repeated at the end, though; the last resounding, fulfilling chord of the final chorale dissipated, the silence was held satisfyingly, and then the hall erupted in deserved applause from a moved but joyful and most privileged audience.