In just over five years since his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, Bach wrote the large majority of his vocal music for the church, an extraordinary feat if we bear in mind that such repertoire represents more than half of the Bach-Gesellschaft edition of his works. This is probably no coincidence: Leipzig, the second most important city in Saxony after Dresden, was at that time a hub for education, trade and book publishing. Appointed Kantor at the Thomasschule, Bach grasped the opportunity to unleash his creativity as he had done with instrumental music during his time in Weimar and Cöthen.

© Michiel Hendrickx
© Michiel Hendrickx

Unfairly shadowed by the monumental and more commonly performed St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion is however a work of tremendous power – admittedly a truism to point out, as Bach was not really capable of writing mediocre music. The version presented before the Madrid audience was the original one, which was first heard in the Nikolaikirche, the official town church, in 1724. Bach would subsequently make further revisions to the original score.

Celebrating 45 years of vocal (and instrumental) health, the Collegium Vocale Gent, in the hands of Philippe Herreweghe , came and conquered. The opening chorus alone would have made the concert worth it, and that was just a blissful mouth opener, with the orchestra establishing the relentless semiquavered foundation over which the chorus sang Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist! The chorus went on to flawlessly adopt all the dramatic roles allocated to it, and was perhaps at its most vivid in the short turba choruses: as a band of servants of the high priests and Pharisees inquisitively demanding after Jesus of Nazareth (Jesum von Nazareth); as a group of Jews exhorting Pilate to set Barabbas free (Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam!), urging that Jesus be not let go (the wonderful fugal imitations in Lässest du diesen los, so bist du des Kaisers Freund nicht), or pressing for his crucifixion (Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!). The immediacy achieved in these moments drew the audience into the events as if the story had never been told before.

Vocal marvels aside, the St John Passion also includes rich obbligato arias, each conceived for a unique combination of instrumental accompaniment. This allows individuals in the orchestra to shine through as soloists in what constitute the most lyrical, Pietistic moments.  And shine they did, with no exception, unpicking their phrases limpidly and providing a carefully balanced counterpoint to the singers. A few cases in point are the flutes in the soprano aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten, the bass viol in the alto aria Es ist vollbracht!, or the violas d’amore in the tenor aria Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärber Rücken. At every stage, Herreweghe treated us to his meticulous yet tasteful conducting, one that led to a sense of constant forward movement, letting the story unfold in all its inevitability.

Thomas Hobbs was impeccable, his terrific narrative talent only surpassed by singing to which no description could ever do justice. He turned the Evangelist – a potentially thankless role, with an endless stream of recitativo secco and no single aria – into an absorbing storyteller, a witness of the unspeakable, a real character of human nature. It is hard to imagine a more nuanced and brilliant rendition of this role. Tobias Berndt, who stepped in at the last minute after Florian Boesch reportedly felt sick, offered a solid Jesus, which only got better in the second half, especially in his more dramatic appearances during recitatives – ‘whoever is of the truth hears My voice’, he sentences. Of the remaining singing characters, all stepping forward from the choir, Grace Davidson deserves a special mention, particularly in Zerfließe, mein Herze in Fluten der Zähren (her ‘your Jesus is dead’ would have made the most determined of atheists ache at the loss). Peter Kooij, who took on the role of Judas as well as all other bass interventions, appeared as the experienced, versatile singer who has seen and sung all, and was particularly inspired in the devilish Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen. Damien Guillon was correct if discreet in the first half, then splendid in the defining moment that is Es ist vollbracht! Likewise, Zachary Wilder (replacing the indisposed Robin Tritschler) was at his best after the interval, especially in a finely delineated Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken.

We can only hope that Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent are back in Madrid very soon or, even better, very often. Existence makes much more sense after an evening with them.

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