Following their widely acclaimed recording of the St John Passion, released on the Hyperion label last year, I had high hopes for the combined forces of Stephen Layton, Polyphony, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Bach; yet, even I was taken aback by the sheer power of the choir’s entry in the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher”.

Polyphony © Benjamin Ealovega
Polyphony
© Benjamin Ealovega

Lacking perhaps some of the expansive grandeur of the longer, later St Matthew Passion, the St John is a work of great immediacy, with the central trial scene almost operatic in its treatment of dialogue and time, the drama pausing only briefly for one, reflective chorale. The choir is also afforded a very operatic function in that, in contrast to many oratorios including Handel’s Messiah, they are not solely objective commentators, but at times, conversely, a baying mob and a crowd of mourners. Polyphony excelled my, already great, expectations, by infusing not only the angered cries for Jesus’s death, but also each chorale, with the same focused intensity. The fugal passages where the crowd cry “Kreuzige, Kreuzige!” (“Crucify him, crucify him!”), and “Wir haben ein Gesetz und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben” (“We have a law, and by that law he ought to die”) are both written in a major key, something that seems somewhat counterintuitive to modern ears due to the ferocity of the drama, yet is not unusual in baroque music. Sometimes these passages, particularly the latter, can seem too polite; however, Polyphony seized the opportunity to relish crisp German dialogue and ever-intensifying fugal writing leaving no doubt as to the crowd’s sentiment.   

Ironically, for a period-instrument performance, post the authenticity debate, a choir of Polyphony’s number (28), whilst once small now seems quite large. More and more ensembles are opting to use only 8 or 9 singers, with soloists doubling as chorus members. The benefit of using such small forces is that the complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is truly exposed and no vocal line is allowed to dominate, however, Stephen Layton has honed Polyphony’s craft to the extent that they represent the best of both worlds. The choir sang at all times with the precision and tautness of four solo voices and created a sound of incredible richness and clarity.

Whilst the choir dazzled, I was a little disappointed with the OAE’s playing. It is an ensemble renowned for its work in this repertoire; however, as a whole the playing was a little pedestrian, and further marred by some tuning issues in the second half. In places, such as the introduction to the opening chorus, there could have been more rhythmic drive, accentuating the pulsating bass line and infusing this wonderfully-intense orchestral writing with more pathos. If not for the choir, whose phrasing throughout was outstanding and sometimes revelatory, this could been a very average performance.

The soloists generally excelled, whilst still being a little outshone by the choir. Jeremy Ovenden showed no signs of strain in a precise reading of the notoriously tricky and high-sitting role of the Evangelist. Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas also shone, her voice effervescent as she intoned “mein Leben, mein Licht” in the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”. Clare Wilkinson gave impassioned readings of the two alto arias, although at times her voice struggled to carry over the orchestra. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the concert came after her second aria, “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is accomplished”), the performance paused for an extended silence, made all the more special by the fact the audience remained completely silent too; not a cough was heard. Robert Davies gave a confident performance as Pilate, however he failed to give a true sense of character to his interpretation; the sense of Pilate's anxiety, indecision and ultimate resignation was never quite conveyed. Neal Davies’s Christ was also lacking a degree of majesty.

Polyphony’s performance of the St John Passion to a sold-out audience is becoming a mainstay of Good Friday at St John Smith’s Square, and based on the strength of the choir’s interpretation there is no need to worry that these performances might become run of the mill. If the orchestral playing had been more dynamic and the soloists’ interpretations a little more characterful, this would have been a truly unforgettable experience.