The Dutch enthusiasm for Bach’s passions is a phenomenon that is verging on the weird. A couple of weeks ago, the newspaper De Volkskrant reported on this ever growing national obsession. The journalist had counted no less than 141 performances of the St Matthew Passion in concert halls and churches nationwide in the run up to Good Friday. Surfing on the wave of popularity of the St Matthew Passion, the lesser-known St John Passion has also recently seen its number of performances soar: 48 throughout the country this season according to that same article. I was therefore somewhat spoiled for choice, but witnessing the collaboration between the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and chamber choir Cappella Amsterdam was the obvious pick. I was not disappointed: accompanied by the renowned period instrument orchestra founded by Frans Brüggen, Cappella Amsterdam, conducted by their artistic director Daniel Reuss, gave a superbly refined performance of Bach’s “other” passion.

Cappella Amsterdam © Annelies van der Vegt
Cappella Amsterdam
© Annelies van der Vegt

The surge in performances of the St John Passion certainly has practical reasons. The St Matthew Passion's grander scale, with its requirement for a double choir and a double orchestra, is quite an undertaking - plus it is so much longer. Musically, it would be daring to pretend that the St John is as perfect as the later St Matthew (which was composed, depending on sources, three or five years later), but the music in the St John sometimes has an urgency that makes it more theatrical and, perhaps, therefore more directly appealing.

Nothing illustrates this better perhaps than the grand opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher" (“Lord, Our Master”) with its string of dissonances which is so successful in evoking the feeling of anguish. This opening chorus was a perfect piece to show off the qualities of the choir from the very start. Cappella Amsterdam’s sound is full but refined, homogeneous and richly nuanced at the same time. With the period instrument sound of the orchestra as a perfect foil, the choir treated us to a beautiful performance throughout the evening. Behind the homogeneity of sound, one still guesses that each member is an accomplished solo singer in his/her own right too, and indeed three of the main soloists in the performance (Pilatus and the two tenors) came from the choir’s ranks. From these, I particularly liked tenor Dolf Drabbels’s very fine performance of the extremely difficult aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”.

The only famous aria of the oratorio, “Es ist vollbracht!” (“It is accomplished!”), beautifully accompanied by a viola da gamba, was movingly sung by Dutch alto Rosanne van Sandwijk, although she was audibly less at ease in the ornamentations of the Allegro passage that briefly interrupts the meditative mood of the aria. Konstantin Wolff (as Christ) and André Morsch both gave fine performances. Overall though, the team of soloists was dominated, heads and shoulders, by the very intense performance of Swedish tenor Anders Dahlin as the Evangelist. It is understandable that he has become such a sought-after Evangelist. His clear tenor is rich in sonority with a beautiful high range but, more importantly, he is a riveting narrator. I have attended so many performances of Bach’s passions where the audience spent the whole time heads down reading the text of the score - with that familiar and irritating noise of pages being turned in unison– but none of that here: Dahlin’s performance commanded full attention and he had most of the audience hanging on his every word.

Bizarrely for an Amsterdam resident, it was the first time I attended a performance by Cappella Amsterdam. One couldn’t have hoped for a better Good Friday evening out, and I am looking forward to the next opportunity to hear them.