The magnificent St Johns Co-Cathedral was the setting for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's performance of Bach's St John Passion for the Valletta International Baroque Festival. The St John Passion is an intensely personal experience, bringing to life the humanity of the passion story, with moments of exquisite intimacy. It was written soon after Bach’s arrival as Kantor at Leipzig’s Thomasschule. In an effort to impress a new congregation, Bach produced a setting of the age-old passion story which overshadowed almost every piece of liturgical music the world had previously known. Bach followed Chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Lutheran Bible, and the tenor Evangelist follows exactly the words of that Bible. The compiler of the additional poetry is unknown. Models are the Brockes Passion and a Johannes-Passion by Christian Heinrich Postel. The first scene is in the Kidron Valley, and the second in the palace of the high priest Kaiphas. Part Two shows three scenes, one with Pontius Pilate, one at Golgatha, and the third finally at the tomb. Bach followed the Gospel of John but added two lines from the Gospel of Matthew, the crying of Peter and the tearing of the curtain in the temple.

Julia Doyle © Raphaelle Photography
Julia Doyle
© Raphaelle Photography

The performance was directed from the harpsichord by Steven Devine. The work opens with the chorus "Herr, unser Herrscher ..." (Lord, our ruler, whose glory is magnified in all lands.) There is an orchestral introduction of 36 bars before the explosive entrance of the chorus. Each of these bars is a single stress of lower tones, weakening until the end of the bar. These bass beats are accompanied by the remaining instruments of higher tunes, by legato singing the prospective theme. The last bars of the orchestral introduction produce a robust crescendo,  where the chorus joins to the long sequence of deep stresses by “Herr, Herr, Herr”. Soon, after the first portion of the theme, comes the triple “Herr, Herr, Herr” again, but this time, at the end of the bars, as a contra answer for the corresponding orchestral deep stresses at the beginning of the bars. Just before the composer's ideas could dry out, the full beginning is repeated.

The part of the Evangelist for this performance was sung superbly by the tenor Nicholas Mulroy, the bass Matthew Brook taking the part of Christus.

The first part of the St John Passion includes three commenting arias. The first is an alto aria "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the tangle of my transgressions). This includes an intertwined oboe line that brings back many characteristics of the opening chorus. Unfortunately, whether due to the positioning of the soloist (Clare Wilkinson) or the acoustics of the cathedral, the voice was overpowered by the orchestra and at times barely audible. However, in "Es ist vollbracht! ..." (It is accomplished; what comfort for suffering human souls!) her voice carried well and we were able to appreciate her wonderful voice. The central part is essentially a viola da gamba solo and an alto aria. The theme is introduced by a single viola da gamba gently accompanied in a usual basso continuo setting, followed by solo vocal interpretation.

Another aria is an enchanting flute and soprano duet, "Ich folge dir gleichfalls", the vocal part performed by Julia Doyle. In this piece the verbs "ziehen" (to pull) and "schieben" (to push) stimulate Bach's delight in musical illustration. The third aria, "Ach, mein Sinn" (O my soul), is a passionate tenor solo, performed by Jeremy Budd, that is accompanied by all the instruments.

The Chorales, providing reflective episodes, and the choruses, which represented the crowd scenes were performed by the Joyful Company of Singers. The chorus “Kreuzige, kreuzige” (Crucify Him, crucify Him) was sung with the right degree of anger. The dramatic argument between Pilate, Jesus and the crowd is not interrupted by reflective elements except for one poignant central chorale “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn”(By way of Thy prison, son of God). The performance was enthusiastically received by the packed audience.