Adducing Simon Schama’s comparison of Rubens’s Descent from the Cross with the same subject as painted by Rembrandt, the conductor and Bach authority John Eliot Gardiner has observed that the differences drawn by the art historian – chiefly, between an emphasis on “action and reaction” in the former and “contemplation and witness” in the latter – might broadly be applied to Bach’s two great Passions as well: St John and St Matthew, respectively. Audiences in Seattle have been provided an opportunity to compare and contrast these unfathomably rich works on the basis of live performances of both, presented over consecutive weekends in a partnership called the Passions Project.

Stephen Stubbs © Stephen Stubbs
Stephen Stubbs
© Stephen Stubbs

This ambitious concept originated from a conversation shared by the early music expert Stephen Stubbs, countertenor Matthew White, and the Seattle Symphony’s music director, Ludovic Morlot. They designed a plan to present the two extant Passion settings by Bach in close proximity, using the same cast of vocal soloists for both. The artistic director of Pacific MusicWorks, a Seattle-based production company focused primarily on vocal music of the 17th and 18th centuries, Stubbs led his musicians in a deeply stirring interpretation of the St John Passion on the concluding weekend of the project. 

Stubbs is also an internationally acclaimed lutenist, and he had participated in that capacity in the performances of the St Matthew Passion on the preceding weekend with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale under Morlot. Although for the most part Bach’s later revisions of both scores were presented, the Passions Project reinstated the elaborate obbligato part for lute that Bach had originally written (and later recomposed for viola da gamba). For St John, Stubbs similarly executed the lute part while also conducting the singers and a period instrument ensemble of 16 players. This allowed for an unusually intimate balance with the pared down chorus of eight singers (two on a part, in other words), who alternately took the spotlight for Bach’s array of solo arias. 

Indeed, the image of the St John Passion as a masterful drama of “action and reaction” – red hot and emotionally direct – was confirmed by this superb performance. While the St Matthew had been heard in the Seattle Symphony’s main concert hall, the performance under review took place in the smaller recital hall at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall complex (capacity of 536). Bach presented this setting during his tenure at Leipzig (on Good Friday of 1724), calling for less elaborate forces and pitching it on a smaller scale overall. Pacific MusicWorks’ performance was therefore more or less guided – albeit non-dogmatically – by current standards of historically informed performance practice with regard to ensemble size, instruments, and the chief interpretive parameters of tempo and articulation. At the same time, Stubbs remarked that these twin productions were “not designed to prove whether modern or baroque instruments are preferable, but rather to make the best possible versions for the size and acoustics” of the two concert venues. 

The notably dry acoustic tended to exaggerate the finely differentiated dynamics that were crucial to Stubbs’ interpretation, particularly in the choruses. As compensation, though, Bach's counterpoint resounded with thrillingly vivid, three-dimensional clarity, while the ability to see the singers’ expressions added greatly to the sense of intimacy and dramatic moment. If St. Matthew often resembles a ritualized epic, this account of St. John was much closer in spirit to a tightly coiled, tense drama. Further intensifying this aspect was Stubbs’s unflagging momentum, typically pushing from one number to the next with no pause.

The cast of nine soloists (eight of them doubling as the chorus) represented an “A-list” of baroque specialists. With the tenor Charles Daniels as the Evangelist, visibility of facial expressions had a particularly powerful payoff. Daniels combined highly dramatic phrasing with a rhetorically arresting – and convincing – stage presence in a way that made his extensive recitatives as expressive as the most intricately composed aria. The bass-baritone Matthew Brook was an imposing Jesus, underscoring the difference from the more ethereal, contemplative figure Bach portrays in St. Matthew.

The astonishing sequence of arias that gives Part Two such emotional depth reinforced the wise choice of this excellent cast. Especially noteworthy were the contributions by the baritone Tyler Duncan, countertenor Terry Wey in the pivotal aria on Jesus’ final words (“Es ist vollbracht”), and the soprano Dorothee Mields, whose “Zerfließe, mein Herze” movingly bridged the two time zones of the narrated events and the “re-enactment” of Bach’s setting. 

Stubbs shaped his tempi not by an abstract dictum of “authentic” performance but according to the internal logic of Bach’s drama, arriving at a deliberately paced final chorus (“Ruht wohl”) that was memorably carried with a sense of all that had preceded. Yet this was capped by a chorale of translucent purity. 

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