BBC Proms: St John Passion, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

Back in 2000, Roger Norrington gave the BBC Proms a memorable performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass to start the new century. Despite using period instruments, he fielded an improbably large number of performers, who filled the Royal Albert Hall – typical of Norrington to come up with an idea that overturns expectations.

Once a controversial pioneer of the period performance movement, Norrington turned 80 this year, but time has not dulled his intellect. It is best to set out to a Norrington concert without any preconceptions and that was as true as ever with his idiosyncratic performance of Bach’s St John Passion at the weekend.

This was not a performance on a grand scale, like the millennium B Minor Mass. Nor was it on period instruments (though the string players were using gut strings and Baroque bows). Norrington took up the post of principal conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra in 2011 and he brought them and the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (about 25 in the orchestra, 36 in the choir) to London for the occasion – enough personnel to create sufficient volume in this hall, but still with buoyancy and clarity. Standards in Zurich sound commendably high.

Norrington evidently sees the St John Passion as a vigorous piece of story-telling. The pace was urgent, not to say rushed. The great opening and closing choruses were businesslike, emotion-lite, while action-packed scenes, such as the crowd’s cries for Jesus to be crucified, gave us high drama. In this atmosphere a vivid narration was called for, which James Gilchrist’s Evangelist supplied eloquently, especially after the interval, when he came back sounding fresher, and Neal Davies made an unusually commanding Christus.

The other four soloists could have done with more breathing space. Lucy Crowe, the soprano, managed admirably, but tenor Joshua Ellicott found himself lunging for the notes, and bass Hanno Müller-Brachmann was short on mellifluous fluency. Countertenor Clint van der Linde, rather anonymous in tone, did his best with Norrington’s breathless speed for “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is accomplished” – which it was, almost before it began). Thought-provoking, sometimes contentious, this was all typical Norrington. He still likes to set his own agenda.

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