Easter is over, but who cares if the timing of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion is a little off?
The first of the Baroque master’s two surviving Passions (musical settings of the Passion of Christ) was performed with stirring conviction and exquisite attention to detail on Wednesday by the International Bach Academy Stuttgart Chorus and Orchestra at Segerstrom Concert Hall as part of the Philharmonic Society season. It’s not often that local audiences get to hear forces with this degree of expertise arrayed to perform a large-ensemble Baroque masterpiece. And this group, founded in 1954, is one of the best in the world when it comes to interpreting the music of Bach.
The St. John Passion is a mid-career work, first performed on Good Friday in 1724. It was written when Bach was 39, shortly after he had become director of church music for the city of Leipzig, the most fruitful job of his career. It was considered one of the most important musical positions in continental Europe, and Bach stayed there until his death in 1750.
The work divides neatly in two; it was originally designed to flank a sermon. Bach drew from the Gospel of John for his libretto. Musically, it follows a new cantata style that combined the recitative-aria approach of Italian opera with choruses and simply arranged hymns that would have been familiar to a congregation of that time and place.
Some Bach scholars have called the work a bit rough around the edges compared to his more polished and ambitious St. Matthew Passion (three others remain lost). Bach might have concurred – he revised it three times over the years.
But there’s no denying the sweep and majesty of the work, the ingenuity of the text setting or Bach’s surpassing expertise with counterpoint.
Small moments impress as well as big ones. The word “cold” is set on a high note for the Evangelist, a narrator part sung by tenor Benedikt Kristjansson. He held it for an instant longer than necessary, his voice soft but piercing – perfect word painting. When the Evangelist describes Jesus’ clothes being divided into four parts by the Roman soldiers, the chorus enters in four-part counterpoint with the words “Let’s not divide this.”
Conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann led his 23-member period-instrument ensemble and 31-voice chorus with a gentle but confident hand. The six soloists were not uniformly gifted, but the best of them, particularly tenor Jakob Pilgram, who handled the arias, and bass Peter Harvey, who sang the words of Jesus, were standouts.
The group’s sense of ensemble is impeccable, and its sound was appropriately ecclesiastical – the customary harpsichord continuo part was played by a subdued organ and a gentle-sounding lute. Rademann carefully balanced choral and instrumental forces, although there were occasional moments when the solo singers were covered by the accompaniment in their lower registers.
After all his tinkering, Bach restored the original version of the…