The original sermons that were given with Bach’s Passions have not survived. No doubt that is the cue for a huge sigh of relief among audiences today, but it is worth remembering how far from a truly authentic experience even today’s historically-informed performances of Bach are. Every occasion is a reinvention on its own terms.
For this Good Friday concert Mark Padmore and the Britten Sinfonia presented the St John Passion in a guise at once Baroque and modern. After more than 150 performances, which have included singing the Evangelist in a fully-staged production cuddling a live lamb, Padmore must know the work better than most, and his ideas have grown out of that experience.
The good news was that a one-hour Lutheran sermon in German was not part of the plan. Instead, there were readings, including extracts from TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the poem he wrote on his conversion to Anglicanism, delivered with calm understatement by Simon Russell Beale — an interesting, if half-baked choice as a modern equivalent, targeted at an educated, 21st-century audience sitting in a concert hall.
In musical terms the performance similarly followed the path of compromise. The Britten Sinfonia played on mostly modern instruments, but with numbers reduced to the minimum possible in this hall. At a dozen in the choir, including Padmore, the Britten Sinfonia Voices was also small in scale, and its members supplied the soloists for the arias, most of them singing to a more than acceptable standard. Padmore’s Evangelist was lyrical and heartfelt as always, despite passing intonation problems. Perhaps most important, there was no conductor. This involved gains and losses, though purely for technical accuracy today’s highly skilled professional musicians hardly need one, and indeed it was a pleasure to hear the chorales performed simply, rather than squeezed for every drop of emotion as they can be.
Arty and simple, authentic and not-authentic, this was a St John Passion to be appreciated on its own terms. As a final reminder of those terms at their best, the choir ended unaccompanied with Jacob Handl’s “Ecce quomodo moritur Justus”, as Bach himself did, and the effect was heavenly.
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