“You don’t know Bach unless you know the ‘St. John Passion.’ ” That was Emmanuel Music founder Craig Smith writing on the occasion of Emmanuel’s recording of the work in 1999. “It is misshapen, personal, and messy,” he continued, “in the same way that the story is misshapen, personal, and messy.” Saturday at Emmanuel Church, current Emmanuel Music artistic director Ryan Turner led the orchestra and choir in a “St. John Passion” that mostly did justice to Smith’s sentiments.
Bach made a number of versions of the work. The 1999 Emmanuel recording used the 1725 revision, which is more chorale-based and comforting. Last month Boston Baroque offered what amounted to the final version on period instruments. For this performance, Turner went back to the 1724 original, with its effusive opening chorus of “Herr, unser Herrscher” (“Lord, our Redeemer”) and pleading final chorale. The real conclusion is the last chorus, “Ruht wohl, ihr heilige Gebeine” (“Rest well, you blessed limbs”), the choir sounding exhausted after two hours of betrayal, denial, torture, and death.
The beginning of Saturday’s performance was unsettlingly misshapen and messy: the 18-piece orchestra seemed congested, and though the 16-member choir managed a massive outburst on “Herr,” both consonants and counterpoint evaporated. Few of the ensuing choruses achieved ideal clarity, but they did combine drama with beauty, and Turner gave a nice dance pulse to the minuet underlying “Sei gegrüsset, lieber Judenkönig.” The chorales, whose balance favored the sopranos and altos, were straightforward and soothing; “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn” was a delicate highlight.
Tenor Matthew Anderson was lighter-voiced than John Mark Ainsley, who sang the role for Boston Baroque, but he pointed the narrative with intelligence and feeling, and he made a strong contrast with bass Dana Whiteside’s heavy, sorrowful Jesus. Their rapid-fire exchanges put the personal into this “Passion” and offset the gentle chorales.
The arias, with the soloists drawn from the choir, were variable. Alto Krista River sang the crucial “Es ist vollbracht” with a control of the words that enabled her to convey their meaning, and she got plangent support from Laura Jeppesen’s viola da gamba. Bass Baritone Bradford Gleim was rich and easy in “Mein teuer Heiland, lass dich fragen,” and the choir waltzed lightly behind him. Tenor Frank Kelley, who sang the Evangelist on the 1999 recording, offered an anguished “Ach, mein Sinn.”
Above all else, Smith’s “St. John Passion” was supremely musical. This performance didn’t have the same ebb and flow, but it was light-textured and radiant, a “Passion” with the promise of resurrection.
An earlier version of this review misstated the name of a soloist, Bradford Gleim.