Bach’s Passion according to St John the Evangelist is not an easy work. Whilst saying I am a “fan” of Bach is one of the greatest understatements possible, this Passion is nonetheless an intense work for any concert-goer (seasoned or amateur) including myself. Over two hours in length, it is a test on both the audience and, quite obviously, the performers. Composed for the 1724 Good Friday Vespers service in Leipzig, Bach’s emotionally powerful masterpiece (undoubtedly the appropriate word), depicting the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, is not a common sight on Parisian concert programmes – the likely reason for the packed concert hall tonight.

Polyphony © Benjamin Ealovega
Polyphony
© Benjamin Ealovega

In charge of such a challenging performance was the eminent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the baton of Stephen Layton and his superb choir Polyphony. Although I am not an ardent defender or critic of the dreaded notion of “authenticity” (more appropriately labelled as “historically-informed performance”), it is always quite a satisfying experience to have one’s ears somewhat purified by the transparency of Baroque music; I was even more satisfied at the sight of the OAE’s violas d’amore and da gamba, as well as the Baroque flutes (but unfortunately no lute). Although a few tuning lapses did occasionally catch my ear during the evening, these were quite clearly the result of a capricious viola d’amore and not of the performer. The delicacy and frailty of such instruments is a small price to pay for the uniqueness of the resulting performance. However, the historically-informed efforts did not end there. The question of anti-Semitism is one that surrounds Bach’s Passion like an unwanted smell, with several performers opting to replace the word “Juden” (Jews) with “Leute” (people) in order to soften the tone of the work. But it was reassuring to hear no such ridiculous substitution tonight.

After the orchestra’s opening, perfectly building the harmonic tension leading to the first choral entry, it was the choir’s turn to prove their worth. With just over 20 members, Polyphony is not a particularly large choir, but it is certainly a powerful choir, yet fortunately not lacking in sharpness. As the first “Herr” was proclaimed, those in the audience who had not predicted the quality of tonight’s performance were left with little doubt. Clearly accustomed to the control of his choir, Layton was left to conduct the orchestra with apparent ease and understanding: the perfect blending of choral and orchestral strength made for an impeccable opening chorus.

It was then time for the narrator St John the Evangelist, sung by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, to begin. Without a doubt the most demanding of parts, the evangelical narrator remains on stage almost throughout of the work. Despite such a challenge, Mulroy gave no indication of fatigue or strain, his voice carrying the strength of the narrative to the very end. The well-rounded voice of Mulroy was perfectly contrasted by that of the powerful bass Neal Davies, singing the part of Jesus. Furthermore, the noteworthy choice of countertenor Iestyn Davies, instead of an alto, proved to be a fine one. The first of the commenting arias “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” showcased Iestyn Davies’s delicate yet passionate voice. The second such aria, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”, was sung by soprano Julia Doyle, with excellent diction and enunciation: I was immediately captured by her aria as her portrayed disciple follows Jesus to see the chief priest Caiphas. As I was left wanting more of Doyle’s supreme voice, it is shame that the work does not call upon the soprano voice more than twice throughout. Instead, it was baritone-bass Robert Davies who dominated the second part of the work, as Pontius Pilate (among several other roles), providing a first-rate performance of the dutiful judge.

Bach’s musical imagery, often subtle but hidden throughout the work, was perfectly brought to our ears by the orchestra: as Peter denies Jesus, a lone cello cried out as the crow of the cockerel; and as Jesus is brought out before the chief priests and the officers and sentenced to crucifixion, the sharp and violent “Kreuzige!” from the choir brought almost pain to the ears. The violent interjections of the choir, denouncing Jesus and later calling for his blood, captured perfectly the spirit and intensity of the scenes depicted.

Ultimately, the intensity and difficulty of the work I outlined at the beginning was to be a moot point: the two hours flew by and before I knew it I was heartily clapping like my neighbours; although the final chorus may have lacked slightly the necessary vigour and energy required for the ending of such a powerful work, this was merely a scratch on an otherwise flawless evening.