Saturday 30 March 2024

Thomanerchor/Reize - Bach, St John Passion, 28 March 2024

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig

Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245 (first version, 1724)

Elisabeth Breuer (soprano)
Jakub Jósef Orliński (countertenor)
Daniel Johannsen (tenor)
Benjamin Appl (bass: Christus)
Tomáš Král (bass: arias)

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andreas Reize (conductor)


At Good Friday Vespers, 1724, in St Nicholas’s Church, Leipzig, the city’s new Thomaskantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, led the first performance of his St John Passion. Three hundred years later, on Good Friday, Bach’s masterwork will return to the same church, performed by the latest incarnation of the composer’s own choir and an orchestra closely related, conducted by the twelfth successor to Bach as Kantor, Andreas Reize. I attended not that performance, but one the previous evening of Maundy Thursday, at the more customary St Thomas’s; it is close enough, I think, to count, without troubling ourselves with complications of lunar versus solar calendars. (For what little it may be worth, the Gregorian calendar had been in use there for a generation.)

Properly enough, the work was given in Bach’s first version of 1724 (strictly, a reconstruction, the score having been lost). It is not so very different from what we usually hear – considerable revisions were made in 1725, mostly reversed in 1749 – but there are a few interesting differences, all of which (I think) had me sit up and notice. The presence of violas d’amore in place of the later muted violins is a case in point. It would be possible to go on at great length about this, and about changes made in the 1730s too, but this is not the place to do so; nor am I a Bach scholar. Details can readily be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say that one of the biggest changes for 1725, loss of the opening chorus, was, Gott sei Dank, not an issue here.

And so, yes, we heard those cries ‘Herr, unser Herrscher,’ less piercing than usual, given the strange acoustic (and seating arrangement) of the Thomaskirche. This is a church, not a concert hall; hearing the performance from the organ gallery above, and not seeing it at all is an unusual experience. It took my ears a good while to adjust, and I suspect it took the performers, even those accustomed to the space, a while to do so too, given how differently it operates with a full audience/congregation. (It is worth adding that this was a concert, not a service, although it was briefly introduced by Pastor Martin Hundertmark.) Whether the extremely fast – I have never heard so fast – tempo adopted by Reize made sense in these circumstances, or indeed any, I am sceptical, but the turbulence and imploring nature of this figurative curtain-raiser eventually came across. When we heard the words ‘Zeig uns durch deine Passion’, it felt as though that revelation was indeed being prepared. Moreover, choral diction here and throughout were, not least given the immense challenges, highly commendable. 

Tempi were in general very fast indeed; this is probably the norm now, though I struggle to understand why. Obsessive fear of ‘Romanticism’ rapidly shades into dampening of message—at least for some of us. The exceptions were interesting. For instance, the choral ‘Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?’ started slowly and accelerated: it certainly made dramatic sense. The moderate tempo to ‘Sei gegüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig!’ was most welcome too, permitting us to hear orchestral detail, in addition to being verbally and dramatically meaningful. Especially in the second part, a greater sense of harmonic rhythm was imparted to such writing, greatly to its and our advantage. As death neared, there was some sense of transformation, of Johannine predestination working its fatal, necessary way. I wondered whether the lack of bite in the chorus in which the high priests tell Pilate the inscription should read not that Christ was king of the Jews, but that he had said he was, was deliberate, an attempt to draw from a sting that now, for obvious reasons, is received problematically. Dramatically, it seemed a pity, but it is understandable. 

Throughout, the Thomanerchor, on home territory in every sense, impressed in what is doubtless a highlight of its year, yet by the same token is very much part of that church year, reliant on and emerging from weekly cantatas. The small solos drawn from its ranks were excellent too. When Reize and the singers drew attention to particular chorale harmonies, underlining subtle yet unmistakable, the effect and consequences were always welcome. Contrast between chorales was also telling. Whether one cared for Johannes Lang’s elaborate organ, stanza-length interpolations between stanzas, would be a matter of taste; on their own terms, they were highly accomplished. Lang even did something similar, albeit more of a lead-in, for the return to the A section in the opening chorus. 

Daniel Johannsen did an heroic job as both Evangelist and solo tenor. At times, quite ‘operatic’ – the first recitative suggested Loge – his approach was always deeply rooted in the text. The words ‘denn es war kalt’ had due, cold bite, for instance, preparing the way for Peter to warm his hands. Peter’s denial and bitter weeping made their point with heightened drama, the following aria (Johannsen’s also) heard in aftershock, yet with continuing bitterness, something akin to ‘Baroque’ expressionism. Benjamin Appl’s Christus was, unsurprisingly, warmer in tone, the natural bloom of his voice well suited to the part, though it varied too, ‘Siehe ist deine Mutter!’ indicative of weariness in a good sense. Bass soloist Tomáš Král presented a fine contrast and complement, his singing beautifully and meaningfully coloured without mannerism, the arioso ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ a particular highlight. Jakub Jósef Orliński sounded more at home, at least on this occasion, in his second aria than his first. There was a ‘purity’ to the second that did not preclude intense, inner drama. Elisabeth Breuer’s bell-like soprano was likewise projected more successfully in her second aria; how the dissonances ground on the word ‘Zähren’ in a fine collaboration with the musicians around her. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was always supportive, though rarely to the foreground. When its strings had opportunity to show their cultivation, they took it, as in the extraordinary bass number with chorus, ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’. 

It was, though, principally the choir’s – and Evangelist’s – evening. And above all Bach’s. There is something both indestructible and infinitely adaptable to his music that will perhaps always remain a mystery, though many have attempted explanation. Even in the case of performances and performance ‘styles’ from which one feels personally distanced, it still miraculously speaks. If we are still here in another 300 years, perhaps even if we are not, Bach will endure.