They are sadly few in number, but some things in this St. John Passion I can report in mildly positive terms would include Stephen Layton’s hand-selected choir Polyphony, whose members dealt with Bach’s demanding vocal lines capably and sang in clear, idiomatic German; bass-baritone Neal Davies (a perfectly respectable if not overly engaging Christ); and Derek Welton’s robustly sung Pilate. Only Carolyn Sampson was deserving of fuller praise, and here one could go on at some length: she sang ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ with the usual light, bell-like tone but in addition to the ornamented (though never overly effusive) expressions of devotion showed us a deeper understanding of what is at stake spiritually – an understanding which returned to haunt her equally thoughtful and layered reading of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

Elsewhere the solo singing was middling. Iestyn Davies sounded underpowered, which I sensed as a conscious interpretive decision, though a problematic one when the voice doesn’t carry beyond the first few rows of the stalls and phrasing is weak. His vocal production was more focused in ‘Es ist vollbracht!’, though for this aria to sound merely pretty is one of the more regrettable things that can befall a St. John Passion. Derek Welten’s arias were curiously timid compared to his Pilate, with text sometimes unclear and phrasing half-finished. Ian Bostridge was originally billed to sing both the Evangelist and the tenor arias, but in a change to the programme Stuart Jackson took over the arias, or at least was led to assume he would be taking over the arias. As it happened Bostridge decided he felt up to singing ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ after all, which led to some confusion on stage and was not a decision I think he’d choose to repeat in hindsight. Give or take some erratic moments and the occasional mannered way with the text, his Evangelist had made an impact up until this point, but he strained too much in this aria and remained in rough voice for the rest of the evening. Stuart Jackson did end up stepping in for the ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’, which he sung nervously, losing his way more than once, though the uncertainty of earlier should be taken into account.

Onstage mishaps were matched in the pit, with muddy ensemble and constant tuning problems from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Period ensemble enthusiasts would find it difficult to defend the playing here: for gut strings to produce such an oddly metallic sound is new to me, there was a surfeit of wheezing from the winds, and phrasing was highly inconsistent. But while there were elements that could be put down to misfortune the overall sense was of a poorly rehearsed band, and Stephen Layton, who is a well-regarded choral director but not a greatly experienced orchestral conductor, could have done more to polish the scrappy playing. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s tendentious way with this music may do more to actively offend, but this performance was a reminder that mediocre Passions make for the most disappointing.