Sir Roger Norrington is 80. He conducts from a seated position, and doesn’t move much: a gentle beat of time with the hand here, a beckoning glance to some member of the orchestra there. But had you been listening to Prom 12 on the radio rather than in the Royal Albert Hall, you wouldn’t have guessed this for a moment, such was the energy with which Norrington and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra launched into the Bach St John Passion. From the first bars of the opening chorus, the rhythm was driving, insistent, impelling the listener into the heart of the story.

Roger Norrington © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Roger Norrington
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The words “Chamber Orchestra” and “Royal Albert Hall” don’t necessarily sit easily together, such is the cavernous nature of the hall’s acoustic. But the Zurich musicians totally overcame any acoustic obstacles, producing a sound that was bright, upbeat and totally clear. The choral sound from the Zürcher Sing-Akademie matched this: theirs is not a rich, opulent timbre, but rather an elegant, precise sound in which notes are clearly articulated and details of rhythmic weighting are easily audible.

Many words have been spent over the years over the extent to which the St John Passion is an operatic work, from the very point of its commissioning, when, according to Lindsay Kemp’s programme note, Bach’s employers had insisted that the music must not be too long or such as “to make an operatic impression”. These arguments now seem rather academic, because regardless of any relationship to opera, one thing is undeniable: the St John Passion is a masterpiece of dramatic storytelling.

James Gilchrist as the Evangelist © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
James Gilchrist as the Evangelist
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
The main weight of responsibility for telling the story rests on the shoulders of the tenor singing the Evangelist, and in this, we were treated to an outstanding performance by James Gilchrist. His voice matched the overall mood of brightness and clarity, a voice which is entrancing to listen to and a clarion call to the faithful. But what impressed me most was the way in which Gilchrist treated Bach’s word setting, imparting immense weight to individual words and phrases. When Gilchrist sang the word “Backenstreiche” (the blows struck at Jesus), the word shocked us; in the words “gekreuziget” (crucified) and “Golgotha”, the accenting in his voice left no doubt as to the horror of the process and the fear and awe associated with the place of crucifixion. The Evangelist in the St John Passion has to sing recitative for the majority of a hundred minutes of music – it requires a performance of total commitment to the text and the music, which is exactly what Gilchrist gave us.

The other soloists have less to do. Neal Davies exuded the appropriate authority as Christ, the confrontation with Pilate being his highlight in the work. The other soloists do not represent specific characters in the story: rather, they are proxies for the emotions felt by the audience in their sympathetic response to Christ’s suffering. Joshua Ellicott, a late stand-in tenor, impressed with smoothness and urgency of voice. Lucy Crowe’s light and bright soprano matched the precision and clarity of timbre of orchestra and choir, although to my taste, Crowe erred too far in the direction of avoiding operatic feel: some more histrionics might not have gone amiss in “Zerfliesse, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” (dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears).

But this is first and foremost an ensemble work, and it is the interplay between soloists, evangelist, instrumentalists and choir which turns it into such an effective vehicle for telling the story of the crucifixion and its place in the Christian faith.

One of the great paradoxes of Christianity in general and the crucifixion story in particular is that it is impossible to unalloy the natural grief and despair at Christ’s death from the true believer’s overpowering joy at the salvation it implies. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the penultimate number, the chorus “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine, die ich nun weiter nicht beweine” (rest well, holy remains, for which I weep no longer). The words on their own go some way to expressing the wonder of eternal peace and rest mixed with the immensity of sympathy for the suffering. But when they are overlaid with Bach’s extraordinary music and an outstanding choral performance, the words acquire phenomenal power, creating a rush of emotion. The final chorale which succeeds them relaxes the tension in its whole-hearted exhortation of God to welcome the sinner on judgement day. It closed the performance with a passage of sublime transcendence.

****1