A Lenten feast with Labadie: CSO, soloists and chorus soar in Bach’s “Saint John Passion”

Sat Mar 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The originally announced plan for this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts was to pair Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos with Bach’s Saint John Passion in two alternating programs of the Easter story. The Golijov fell victim to the budget axe, replaced by a program of Schubert, Schubert/Golijov and Copland, while the Bach remained.

That’s not a bad result, since, while Golijov is a gifted composer his wildly overrated take on the Saint Mark gospel would seem even more trendy and musically slender next to the granitic integrity of J.S. Bach.

Bach’s Saint John Passion is shorter and less celebrated than his Saint Matthew Passion, yet there is an immediacy, an emotional directness and a spontaneous flow in this music that is in some ways even more striking (even though recent scholarship shows Bach greatly revised the work). Much of the text concerns the trial of Jesus, his dialogue with Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion, with the soloists and chorus portraying historical roles or providing commentary in the form of arias and chorales on the spiritual significance of the text.

Bernard Labadie made his CSO debut last May with a decidedly mixed program of Mozart and Haydn. On Friday afternoon, the Canadian conductor was much more in his Baroque element, leading an uncommonly fresh, vital and moving performance that put across all the richness, variety and expressive power of Bach’s sprawling work with supreme impact.

Tilman Lichdi

Any successful performance of this music hinges on the role of the Evangelist, who acts as narrator and spiritual guide for Saint John’s gospel. One can go a lifetime without hearing the Evangelist sung as well as by Tilman Lichdi, and I’m not forgetting Peter Schreier. The young German tenor has the ideal high, liquid instrument for this part and Lichdi was simply sensational. He soared through the stratospheric writing with ease, bringing biting dramatic intensity to his narration and expressive force to such moments as Peter’s denying of Jesus, even tackling the oft-jettisoned coloratura passages with astounding agility.

Veteran bass Neal Davies made an assertive if rather gruff Jesus in Part One, yet brought sensitivity and touching pathos to his final words.

David Daniels

The cadre of local David Daniels fans were probably disappointed that the world’s most celebrated countertenor had so little to do, appearing in just two arias. While his light tone didn’t always project firmly, Daniels brought fine expressive poise to Es ist vollbracht with bracing virtuosity in the fast central section.

A late substitution for an ailing Werner Güra, Nicholas Phan’s plangent tenor was heard to superb effect in a dedicated reading of the extended aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken.

Soprano Karina Gauvin and bass-baritone Nathan Berg sang capably in their appearances though both seemed uncomfortable with the more florid demands of their arias.

Daniel Eifert, a member of the CSO Chorus, was a darkly resonant Pilate, while colleagues Cari Plachy, Michael Boschert and Klaus Georg fulfilled small roles with aplomb.

Labadie balanced his forces with great skill and paced the 140 minutes masterfully with a firm sense of momentum, buoyant rhythms and fine articulation. With David Taylor in the concertmaster’s chair everything sounded clear and vital, with superb obbligato solos by Taylor, cellist John Sharp,  flutist Mathieu Dufour, and guest viola da gambist Craig Trompeter.

Kudos to the sixty CSO Chorus members who, well prepared by Duain Wolfe, gave Labadie everything he asked for, even with some breakneck tempos in Part Two. The Chorus showed their esteemed versatility, singing with fury and vehmence as the crowd and bringing a consoling spiritual warmth when needed.

There are just two more performances and this Bach is not to be missed.

Bach’s Saint John Passion will be repeated  8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. www.cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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