mon 17/06/2024

Bach St John Passions from Oxford and Stockholm online review – theatrical drive from Gardiner, interiority under Harding | reviews, news & interviews

Bach St John Passions from Oxford and Stockholm online review – theatrical drive from Gardiner, interiority under Harding

Bach St John Passions from Oxford and Stockholm online review – theatrical drive from Gardiner, interiority under Harding

Fine young English Evangelist and Christ versus Gerhaher, Hallenberg and others

Ann Hallenberg sings 'Es ist vollbracht' with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony OrchestraSwedish Radio

Last Easter, viewing options were limited: no-one who saw it will forget a version of Bach’s St John Passion from the church where it was first performed in 1724, Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, with an idiosyncratic tenor taking all the parts other than the chorales – live from a quintet and streamed in from around the world – and accompanied only by organ/harpsichord and percussion.

But the real thing has been so longed for. This year, if you booked far enough in advance, you could even catch small vocal groups in various church services; I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the Maundy Thursday Sung Eucharist in St Mary Abbots Kensington, with music by Hassler, Vierne, Duruflé, Elgar and Byrd. Bach in his full grieving glory remains confined to the screen, but how good to catch it all in performances from Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre and Stockholm’s Berwald Hall, home to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir.

The greatest knowledge and experience belongs, of course, to Bach’s foremost earthly representative, John Eliot Gardiner, with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Though streamed for the first time on Good Friday afternoon, this wasn’t live; we had the benefit of the Sheldonian Theatre’s natural light until No. 21a (some way into the much longer Part Two), and then darkness outside, subdued hues within, all of it skilfully filmed with singers placed at various levels (pictured below). Dramatic drive came partly from all vocalists knowing their parts by heart – no scores – and Gardiner’s familiar thrust, guttiness and dissonance immediately piercing in the first number. Gardiner conducts Bach's St John Passion in OxfordThe Monteverdi Choir is surely unsurpassable in bright expressiveness; the dramatic trial of Christ flamed. There was also huge advantage in having a young Evangelist, Nick Pritchard, often feminine in expression but with plenty of energy when needed, very striking when the scene at the cross changes to perception of the Marys – mother, aunt and Magdalena. And a young Christ, true bass William Thomas, made for great pathos.

Alongside Gardiner’s cut, Daniel Harding’s introspective tenderness and the softer edges of the Swedish Radio Choir took some adjusting to, and you wished that they, too, were score-free; but ultimately they offered a more unified experience (and full marks to Swedish Radio for providing crucial English subtitles; I could find none on the Deutsche Grammophon presentation of the Oxford event). Both conductors, incidentally, know all the words. The Oxford weakness lay in a tenor and baritone of less than rock solid technique in the Part Two arias, which need absolute expressive security: no need to name them, but Andrew Staples moved from softer-grained Evangelist to stylish tenor in Stockholm, and the most dramatic performance of all here came from Christian Gerhaher, carrying over Pilate’s pent-up anger and confusion into “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (“Hurry, you tempted souls”, pictured below with Matthew Rose, seated, an authoritative Christ). Gerhaher and Swedish forces in StockholmNor, despite a certain sense of style, are Gardiner’s Julia Doyle and Alexander (son of Michael) Chance a match for Harding’s Julia Kleiter and Ann Hallenberg. With Gardiner, there were rocks in the way of a clear stream; hearing Hallenberg’s “Es ist vollbracht” ("It is accomplished") followed by superlative baritone and soprano arias towards the end allowed tears to flow untrammelled. You felt that here were not just singers, but compassionate human beings who happen to sing.

It seems uncharitable to end on a quibble, which one had to set aside once noted, but if as Gardiner says in his spoken introduction, Bach offers eternal values beyond the Lutheran context, then we need to see all humanity represented. An all-white line-up, bolstered by Oxbridge choral-scholar conservatism in the English case, isn’t really acceptable. But, that stated, do watch – the Stockholm film is free to view, and in its last half-hour takes us right to the emotional core of Bach’s unparalleled achievement.


I could scarcely disagree more! Apart from the subtitles, I found the Oxford account superior in every respect. Julia Doyle more technically assured and heartfelt than Julia Kleiter. I wonder if you are inferring that the Oxford singers were not compassionate. I found them so in every breath. How wonderful that such different responses can be evoked in two different people!

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