The St John Passion was originally composed for the Good Friday service in Leipzig in 1724, and Stephen Layton has made a tradition of performing this work every year around Easter with his Polyphony ensemble in London. Given this and the experience of his revelatory B minor Mass with the same orchestra two years ago, I had high expectations of this concert which were, one or two blots aside, largely fulfilled in what was a truly involving Bach experience.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

Things didn’t start promisingly, however. The choral lines in the great opening ensemble were a little ill-defined and perhaps the orchestral musicians were taken aback by the flowing speed Layton set as it took a while for their ensemble coordination and tuning to settle down. Fleet speeds were a general feature of Layton’s conducting here (including the fastest “Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen” I’ve ever heard) yet they never seemed rushed, each making perfect sense as a follow-on from the previous movement. An admirable feature of Layton’s approach to Bach is his feeling for the whole work as a continuous narrative experience. Drama was certainly to the fore – the confrontations between Pilate and the Jews given exciting treatment in both chorus and orchestra. The pause after Jesus’s death seemed to last an eternity as the hall bristled with emotion.

Nicholas Mulroy attempted the feat singing both the highly arduous role of the Evangelist and the tenor arias (often split between two singers) and triumphed rather spectacularly. From the beginning, there was never any sense that the Evangelist’s part was bloodless recitative; this was a truly alive narrative. He was never afraid to make a dramatic statement whether it be through urgent declamation or through the achingly drawn-out phrases as Jesus dies on the cross, and these different moods were vocally coloured in a most involving fashion. Mulroy was also consistently fresh-toned in the high tessitura and able to fine his tone down to the most gorgeously projected ghostly pianissimo. A little hoarseness threatened to intrude at the outset of “Ach, mein Sinn” but he got through the difficult arias most honourably.

Nicholas Mulroy © Raphaelle Photography
Nicholas Mulroy
© Raphaelle Photography

The only blot on the casting was Paul Whelan in the role of Jesus. I had previously admired his bluff Daland in New Zealand Opera’s Flying Dutchman but a fine Daland did not translate to suitability in Bach here. It’s a big, burly sound that never quite seemed to find the centre of the note and operated at consistently high volume with little subtlety. Compared with the strong concern for text and phrasing exhibited by the rest of the cast, this was a missed opportunity. It is a dramatic issue if your Jesus is outsung by your Pilate but this is what happened in this performance. Coping gamely with the coloratura in the aforementioned “Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen” and singing with expressive, oaken tone in “Betrachte, mein Seel”, Australian bass Derek Welton was right inside the drama in his scenes with Jesus.

Similarly, the other vocal soloists superbly integrated themselves into Layton’s overall dramatic conception. The soubrette-ish soprano soloist was another Australian, Siobhan Stagg. After a charmingly perky “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”, she summoned a surprising depth of feeling for “Zerfliesse, mein Herze”, sorrow colouring her phrases. “Es ist vollbracht” was a highlight of the evening, countertenor Christopher Lowrey combining plangency of tone with a simplicity of utterance that went right to the heart of one Bach’s most exquisite movements. Mention must also be made of Laura Vaughan’s deeply felt viola da gamba solo.

The appropriately pared down Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra mostly recovered from their uncertain start and engaged well with Layton’s vision of the piece. I would only question if perhaps the accompaniment to some of the arias was a bit too forthright – there were times in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” when the flute solo threatened to overwhelm the soprano, for example. I appreciate the importance of the obbligato parts but they shouldn’t be at the expense of the vocal lines. The interweaving oboes in “Von den Stricken” were better in this regard. As the first chorale began, the University of Auckland Chamber Choir’s uncertainty had disappeared and if anything they surpassed their B minor Mass performance of two years ago, the alto section in particular showing off a stunningly round, warm tone. I really admired how they were drawn in to the drama particularly as the Jews in the Second Part. Though their initial cries of “Herr” could have done with more amplitude elsewhere the attention to dynamics was well-nigh flawless and they maintained body even in the heartbreakingly quiet end to some of the chorales. The final chorale of praise brought a new fullness of tone out of them and ended an extraordinary evening on just the right note of exultation.