La Nuova Musica
Bach's St John Passion at the Bristol Baroque Festival
The St John Passion tells the story of a brutal death. There’s betrayal, loss, bitterness, suffering, blood and tears. A crown of thorns is placed on an innocent man’s head, and he is nailed to a cross. It’s one of the most well known stories in Western history, but familiarity doesn’t make it any the less dramatic. And, although Bach never wrote an opera, it’s surely in his Passion settings that he channelled his genius for drama, word-painting and telling an emotionally gruelling story that should grip the listener.
So, for all its many virtues, it was disappointing that La Nuova Musica’s recent performance lacked that vital spark of theatre. For all the moments of beauty from this distinguished group of singers and instrumentalists, the Passion in this performance at St George’s, Bristol came across as sanitised, the blood shed left no stains and when Jesus uttered ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ – ‘It is finished’ – the words carried little weight.
They always had a tough task, choosing a small period orchestra with just single strings, and nine singers (including soloists). That’s not to say that concentrated intimacy can’t be as impactful as massed forces – the Dunedin Consort’s new John Passion recording being one just recent powerful example of how small can be beautiful. But in the turbulent opening chorus the bass was overpowering, giving it an earthy gutsiness, certainly, but also sounding unbalanced, a feeling that persisted throughout the performance.
Evangelist Simon Wall had a lovely natural direct tenor and narrated in unflustered fashion, though he seemed curiously distanced from the audience and action – even seeming blocked from us by his score. Of the soloists, Augusta Hebbert lit up the stage, with a clear, full-toned and flowing performance of the two-flute aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’. And her voice was well complemented by Ciara Hendrick’s burgundy alto, who sang the companion two-oboe aria ‘Von der Stricken meiner Sünden’, although without that final ounce of emotional depth. There was raw gusto and some rough edges from the unnamed tenor replacing Thomas Herford, while James Arthur had a resonant rich bass and as Pilate, Timothy Dickinson’s stage presence added a much-needed note of drama. But as a choir, the singers’ interjections of ‘crucify him’ seemed tame and the unrelenting sweep of their scenes were rushed.
Of course, there is scope for meditation and contemplation in this Passion, and in those instances the sonorous beauty of the singing shone through. And there were moments when David Bates upped the drama: the opening chorus simmered with tension thanks to the expansive crescendos and hissing 's's. But fast tempos in many places, including the chorales, seemed to be used as a shortcut to excitement. Next time, well, just a little more heartfelt passion please.