A year after the first performance of his St John Passion, Bach made several significant alterations that divert the emphasis of the work away from Christ’s final triumph over death, focusing instead on human sinfulness. Nowadays, the first version, of 1724, is the one most commonly performed, but appropriately enough – given that we are in the depths of the penitential time of Lent – tonight’s performance by the Newcastle Bach Choir under Eric Cross included some of the 1725 numbers. It is a little puzzling as to why only some of the later version was used, but perhaps it was felt that performing the substitutes for the glorious and much-loved opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ and the lovely tenor aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ would be too much.

Newcastle Bach Choir
Newcastle Bach Choir

The first of the 1725 numbers was a wonderfully exciting bass aria, overlaid with a soprano chorale ‘Himmel, reisse, Welt erhebe’ (‘Heaven open, earth tremble’), performed with spirit by Peter Harvey and cellist Deborah Thorne, and serenely accompanied by Mhairi Lawson and the two flutes. A tenor aria ‘Ach, windet euch nicht so’ (‘Ah, do not writhe so’), with oboes representing the tormented sinners writhing in anguish substituted for the usual ‘Erwage’, which calls on the listener to imagine the glories of heaven.

The two central soloists, the Evangelist and Jesus, were both magnificent. Thomas Walker’s Evangelist grew in tone and expression as the evening went on; he began sounding quite formal, like a witness giving a statement, and gradually gave himself over to the power of the story he was telling, so that the moment when he tells of Christ’s death was extremely moving, despite the simplicity of the recitative. He also sang the tenor arias, and although ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ sounded as though he was still in recitative mode, he sang ‘Ach, windet euch nicht so’ with great energy. Marcus Farnsworth was a majestic Jesus, and his speeches during the trial, particularly ‘Mein Reich ist nicht von dieser Welt’ (‘My Kingdom is not of this world’) were full of authority.

The Newcastle Bach Choir are a fairly large chorus (about 100 voices) and I was sceptical about how they would balance with the delicate sound of Newcastle Baroque’s period instruments, but in fact the acoustics of the Sage and a good balance meant this wasn’t a problem. The choruses were solidly unadventurous – accurately sung, but never truly exciting. The slower pace worked for some movements, such as ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ (‘We have a law’), where the high priests are being particularly pedantic; and ‘Kreuzige’ (‘Crucify’) was heavy and menacing and not the delirious shriek that it sometimes becomes. But at other times, some of the venomous spite was missing. The chorale movements were sung with a lovely simplicity, with disciplined phrasing, and really did sound like a German congregation singing well-loved hymns – which is what would have happened in the original performances.

The soprano and alto soloists only have a couple of movements apiece in the St John Passion, but they are all ravishingly beautiful. Soprano Maihri Lawson was clear and light, and even from quite a long way back in the hall I had a sense of her communicating with the audience – I particularly enjoyed her ornamentations on the da capo repeat of ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ (‘I follow you’). The alto aria ‘Es ist vollbracht’ (‘It is finished’), with its viola da gamba accompaniment, is one of Bach’s greatest achievements, and Robin Blaze’s performance was stunning. He sang the haunting melody with exquisite focus and control, before exploding into the faster middle section with long runs of immaculately placed semi-quavers. It was simply a joy to listen to.

I have to admit, though, that I missed the surge of joy that comes with the closing chorale of the 1724 version: the German Agnus Dei (‘Christ, du Lamm Gottes’) that Bach wrote for the later version, I found to be an uninspiring end to the piece. It was a treat to hear the two unfamiliar 1725 arias, and they created added interest, but in all it served to demonstrate why it is the more optimistic version that is usually performed.