Arts & Events

New: Bach’s ST. JOHN PASSION Performed by American Bach Soloists

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday February 27, 2018 - 03:32:00 PM

Over the weekend of February 23-26, American Bach Soloists performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion throughout the wider Bay Area (including Davis). I caught the Saturday performance at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Bach composed his St. John Passion for Good Friday, 1724, and it was performed in the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig during Bach’s first year as Kappelmeister in Leipzig. (Bach, by the way, was Leipzig’s third choice for this post. They offered it first to Georg Philipp Telemann, then to Christoph Graupner, who both turned it down. Only then did they turn to Bach.) 

What Bach gave Leipzig in his St. John Passion was something quite new. Bach transformed the musical account of Christ’s Passion from plainchant and an occasional chorale sung by the congregation to a multidimensional work with choruses, recitatives, arias, and chorales. A year later, in 1725, Bach gave a second Good Friday performance of the St. John Passion, this time in a revised version, which is the one performed here by American Bach Soloists under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas.  

The 1725 version opens with a chorale, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß..”/”O man, bewail thy grievous sins.” Sung here by American Bach Chorus, this chorale emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice of his own life in atonement for human sins. Next comes a Recitative for the Evangelist, sung here by tenor Aaron Sheehan. The Evangelist serves as narrator of Christ’s Passion. As the Evangelist, tenor Aaron Sheehan sang with brilliant tone and excellent German diction. The role of Jesus, performed here by baritone Jesse Blumberg, is largely a speaking role. The first large solo aria, one for alto, was capably sung here by Robin Bier. This aria, “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden”/”From the shackles of my sins,” is accompanied by oboes and cellos. Next came a solo for soprano, beautifully sung here by Hélène Brunet, accompanied by transverse flutes. There follows the narration of Peter’s three denials of Christ, and a bit later there is an agitated aria in which Peter, brilliantly sung here by bass Jefferson Packer, bitterly laments his betrayal of Christ. This was the highlight of Part One of American Bach Soloists performance of Bach’s St. John Passion.  

As Part Two begins, the story of Christ’s interrogation and flagellation is recounted by the Evangelist. When Pontius Pilate, sung here by baritone Bryan Jolly, asks a mob what accusations they bring against Jesus, the Jews reply, “Were he not an evildoer we would not have delivered him up unto thee.” When Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews, Jesus replies that “My kingdom is not of this world.” When Pilate, finding no fault in Jesus, offers the Jews to name Jesus as the man to be released according to their customs, the mob responds, “Nicht diesen, sondern Barrabam!”/”Not this man, give us Barrabas!” Pilate tries several more times to persuade the Jews to drop charges against Jesus and release him, but the angry Jewish priests cry out, “Kreuzige, kreuzige!”/”Crucify him! Crucify him!” A bit later the mob reiterates this angry admonition, howling, “Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn”/ “Away, away with him! Crucify him!” Jesus is led away carrying his cross on the way to Golgotha.  

When Jesus is hoisted upon the cross, a Chorale sings a mournful lament that is nonetheless full of rejoicing in Christ’s noble sacrifice. However, at the words, “Dich hast geblut’ zu Tod!” “Did bleed to death!”, the chorus sings a sadly descending line to end on a very low note. As Jesus dies upon the cross, a beautiful aria is sung by alto Robin Bier. This aria, “Es ist vollbracht”/”It is fulfilled,” is accompanied by viola da gamba, impressively performed here by William Skeen. An earthquake rends the temple, and the rocks are split asunder, as the orchestra features two oboes da caccia, played here by Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard, and two transverse flutes, played here by Sandra Miller and Janet See. In a final shift of tone, the chorus then delivered a sad yet peaceful tribute, “Rhut wohl, ihr heilingen Gebeine”/”Rest well, sacred bones.” In this lovely chorus and the final chorale that follows, the theme of Christ Victorious is declared, and the sacrifice of Christ as the Lamb of God is celebrated.  

Playing on period instruments, American Bach Soloists gave an impeccable performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Now closing in on three decades of historical performance practice, American Bach Soloists is a treasure for the Bay Area music community.