CPE Bach’s St John Passion, Cadogan Hall, London – review

It all seemed very predictable: in this concert, conducted by Kirill Karabits, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers performed a St John Passion. Standard Easter fodder? Not quite. The composer was not Johann Sebastian Bach, as one might assume, but one of his 20 children, Carl Philipp Emanuel. And the main item on the programme was probably last heard more than 200 years ago.

Composed in 1784, this St John Passion was never published during its composer’s lifetime and was thought lost until 1999, when it re-emerged in a Ukrainian library. Now Karabits has prepared his own edition and judging by this Cadogan Hall performance – celebrating the 300th anniversary of Emanuel’s birth – he has done a sophisticated job.

But was the piece worth defrosting? In a word, yes, as it pays tribute to Emanuel’s considerable powers of harmonic and rhythmic invention. In keeping with common practice of his time, however, it is not composed entirely by him: he adapted the music of all the Biblical narrative sections and chorales from a 1745 St John Passion by his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann. While the result feels bitty, a patchwork of styles, it is nonetheless very moving.

Emanuel is known for bridging the gap between the baroque and classical eras, and this piece indicates why. It sounds like something his dad might have written, but a mellowed-out version, eschewing knotted lines in favour of elegant simplicity. Under Karabits’s baton, the BBC Singers and the BSO approached the material enthusiastically, with excellent solos from the tenor Robin Tritschler as the Evangelist. In their hands, the story of the Crucifixion came to life with a pungent force, most notably in the sections for which Emanuel was responsible, including the plaintive accompanied recitative “Schon steiget in die Himmel’’.

The rest of the concert was comparatively bland, not in content, but delivery. Telemann’s Missa super “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, TVWV 9:3 was sweetly sung but underpowered; Emanuel’s ode “Klopstock’s Morgengesang am Schöpfungsfeste”, Wq 239 (H. 779) never fully took off; and his Symphony in B flat, Wq 182 No 2 (H. 658) – a piece brimming with idiosyncrasies – sounded generic in the BSO’s interpretation. All their passion, evidently, had been saved for the Passion.


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