Last night I watched as Jacqueline Shave and the Britten Symphonia took three, four, five curtain calls in the Barbican concert hall. Of course, the 1,500 or so people who, like me, had ventured out into an oddly deserted city on Good Friday evening to hear them were applauding their tremendous musicianship. But there was something more as well. The work they had just spent the past two hours performing produces an emotional charge all of its own. At the end of the St John Passion, rapturous applause signals catharsis, as well as appreciation.
Thanks to Mendelssohn and, much later, Jonathan Miller, Bach’s St Matthew Passion was the first of Bach’s two surviving sacred oratorios to gain widespread popularity outside Leipzig, and remains far better known these days than the St John. There can be no doubt Bach gave the Matthew some fabulous arias, but it is in the John that you feel Bach rally mastered fusion of subject and form. As the source text demands, it is more angular, more chromatic, more despairing. The melodies are haunting and cruel. The harmonies contain all the contradictions and difficulties of the eighteenth century church: betrayal, struggle and hell are ever present, the minor chord waiting to follow the major.
At the heart of it all is the evangelist, who narrates the passion story. It’s an immensely difficult part to sing, not least because an awful lot of it consists of filling in the “Jesus said” and “Pilate answered” in between other parts. But as Nicholas Mulroy demonstrated last night, when done well, it anchors the whole, sprawling work. Working closely with the continuo players, he controlled the momentum of the piece, speeding up and slowing down the recitative to suit the music and the words. Most importantly, he allowed there to be silence at crucial moments, points at which you could hear your own breathing between the notes. He had the whole thing off by heart as well, which never fails to impress me.
Jesus has always been a great source of concern for me in the St John Passion. Ridiculous as it sounds, I’d just always assumed that Jesus would have a tenor voice, so the fact that Bach wrote him as a bass gives me a bit of a jolt every time. But last night, Matthew Brook introduced me for the first time the powerful beauty of the role, and I’ll never again think of those arias as time when you can safely allow the mind to wander.
The whole thing really is one of the crowning achievements of western music. I defy anyone to listen to the pivotal alto aria “Es ist vollbracht” and not weep:
And then, of course, it contains Bach’s most beautiful chorale:
Last night’s particularly brilliant performance, and the fact that although I went on my own with no expectation of company, I happened to be sat near some old choir friends, made me so joyfully giddy that I was far happier than anyone ought to be on Good Friday.
(If you have time, it’s worth watching John Eliot Gardiner’s version at the Proms. He takes it at a terrifyingly fast speed, but he does know what he’s doing…)