MOB wraps season with a deep and memorable “St. John Passion”

Mon May 20, 2013 at 11:40 am

By Tim Christiansen

“Christ of St John of the Cross” by Salvador Dali, 1951.

Bach’s setting of the Passion According to Saint John is dramatic, human, and, often, incredibly intimate.

Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque did Bach’s music great justice Sunday night at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.  The performance was in the Baroque style and far from stodgy and academic.  It was tensely dramatic, tenderly beautiful, and on edge, as a story of this magnitude ought to be.

Bach’s St. John Passion was first performed in 1724 for the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig.  Bach had made many revisions to the piece throughout the course of his life, only to revert more-or-less back to the original in 1749.

The piece is constructed of arias, recitatives, chorales and choruses.  At times the full forces of orchestra and chorus are used and produce glorious, emphatic climaxes; and at others, chamber trios and quartets yield warm, embracing tones.  Glover and the Music of the Baroque orchestra and chorus kept the structure and direction clear through the rapidly changing, conversational music and truly told the Easter story.

Jane Glover conduced the Passion brilliantly.  Without a baton she conjured great sound out of the musicians. With dramatic motions she pulled fugue subjects out of the thick sonic webs of counterpoint, illustrating the masses screams to ‘crucify.’ This contrasted with gentle head nods to cue the continuo at moments of Peter’s self-reflection and sadness.

The chorus sang as one multilayered voice.  Their vowels were clear, consonances and cutoffs unified, and counterpoint balanced.  They shone the brightest in the chromatically dense chorales.  The basses provided a solid foundation as the top voices balanced accordingly.  Glover took the chorales at very liberal tempos with great dynamic contrast.

Each soloist was supremely confident in Baroque style.  The alto, Krisztina Szabó’s ornamentation was precise and clear.  When singing with woodwinds and orchestra in her arias, however, her sound did not always project as well.  She sounded her best when performing with Mary Springfels’ impassioned viola da gamba, in the aria, Es ist vollbracht (It is fulfilled).

Soprano Yulia van Doren was a true virtuoso.  Her first aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten required great agility and buoyancy when skipping from pitch to pitch.  Her tone was wonderfully clear and appropriately light.

The role of Jesus was sung by bass-baritone Nathan Berg with a tone rich, commanding and resonant.  Berg also sang the bass arias. 

The standout was the tenor Paul Agnew who performed the extremely demanding Evangelist role and tenor arias.  His successful rendition was due to his ability to tell the story like a dynamic and engaging storyteller, painting a vivid picture with varied vibrato and tone coloring. In Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken he was accompanied by two violins and a cello, the four musicians producing a chamber-like intimacy, as they all listened closely to one another.

The St. John Passion will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater, Music of the Baroque’s final performance of the season.

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