Making his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra last Friday, Richard Egarr joined an illustrious list of conductors who have led them in their Holy Week Passion. This tradition goes back to 1899, when chief conductor Willem Mengelberg started conducting Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Palm Sunday. As well as the grand St Matthew Passions by Mengelberg and his successors, such as Eugen Jochum, this practice has yielded historically informed performances of both Bach passions by, among others, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Ton Koopman. Recently, the RCO has decided to intersperse, every five years, the alternating Bach Passions with a Passion by another composer, but this year it was again the turn of the St John. Egarr, with superlative vocal and instrumental soloists at his disposal, gave a nimble-paced, light-textured interpretation of the more theatrical of Bach’s settings.

Ann Hallenberg © Nancy Glor
Ann Hallenberg
© Nancy Glor

Extracting a soft, velvety sound from the strings and maintaining a warm, cushiony basso continuo, Mr Egarr was constantly supportive of the vocal soloists. Both as conductor and while accompanying recitatives on the harpsichord, he created ample space for subtle expression, moulding the surges of orchestral sound around the voices in a most sensitive manner. It is impossible to single out any of the solo players, all technically excellent and eloquent in interpretation. The two-dozen strong Dutch Chamber Choir, with its youthful slim vibrato and crystalline diction, sang the opening and closing choruses with deftness and equilibrium and was punctilious in the intricate fugues and canons. It was surprising that, with such a nimble chorus available, Mr Egarr chose to take most of the chorales at the same, fairly fast tempo, with little dynamic variation. The result was that, rather than contemplative moments within the unfolding drama, the chorales felt more like beautiful interruptions. The chorus was also dramatically underused in some of the crowd passages. They were highly convincing when mocking Jesus or confounding Pilate with local laws and customs, but when the time came to bay for blood, they sounded too restrained. One expected at least some piercing overtones in the sopranos and tenors in the hysterical cries for crucifixion.

In contrast, drama dripped from every utterance of tenor Michael Schade’s Evangelist. Mr Schade, with his penetrating piani and fierce fortes, willed the listener into his elaborately crafted narration. Is there another Evangelist today who can pour more vehemence and outrage in the sentence “Und gaben ihm Backenstreiche” (And they hit Him on the cheek), or crow so accusingly into Peter’s ear as he piercingly declaims the word “krähete”? True to the theological nature of St John’s Gospel, bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams was an unfaltering, heroic Christ figure, vocally secure and with a vigorous timbre. Besides embodying Peter and Pilate, Christopher Purves also lent his wonderfully anchored, slightly gravelly voice to the bass arias. He achieved simple pathos in the arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen” (Contemplate, my soul, with anxious pleasure), aided by Israel Golani’s feather-light lute and the warm violins of Liviu Prunaru and Henk Rubingh. His Pilate was memorably three-dimensional, negotiating with Jesus’ accusers with a mix of fair-mindedness and weariness and exiting with booming exasperation on the words: “Was ich geschrieben habe, das habe ich geschrieben.” (What I have written, I have written). Tenor Benjamin Hulett was announced as suffering from a cold, which did not prevent him from giving a well-sung and emotional performance. His top notes were marginally reined in during “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider, how His blood-stained back), but he was completely up to the aria’s technical challenges. Expressing Peter’s remorse after having betrayed Jesus, his on-the-edge-of-sanity desperation in “Ach, mein Sinn” (Alas, my conscience) was acutely moving.

The female soloists rounded off the exceptional cast. At the start of Ann Hallenberg’s first aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the knots of my sins), the two oboes started forging ahead of her. Once the tempo was synchronised, the audience could revel in her luxuriant legato and inwardly reflective performance. Just before the Evangelist announced Christ’s death, she deepened her plum-toned mezzo in breadth and colour to sing a magnificent “Es ist vollbracht!” (“It is finished!”), perfectly complemented by Cassandra Luckhardt’s mournful viola da gamba.

Equally impressive was soprano Carolyn Sampson, with seemingly endless breath in the long, winding lines of “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten” (I follow You likewise with happy steps), which featured astonishing flute playing by Emily Benyon and Julie Moulin. Her voice has a delicate timbre but it carried and filled the house marvellously. In her plaintive, silver-tinged “Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” (Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears), even someone unaware of what the text means would have fully understood the aria’s intent: Ms Sampson’s voice flowed and glinted like real tears.