You wouldn’t think it’s been more than 20 years since the Handel and Haydn Society last presented Bach’s “St. John Passion.” Emmanuel Music and Boston Baroque offered it just last year. Then again, this work, which Bach composed for Good Friday 1724, is not as consoling as his “St. Matthew Passion,” which followed three years later, and parts of the text could be read as anti-Semitic. Boston Baroque was performing the piece for the first time last year. Sunday at Symphony Hall, it got a dramatic reading from Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Period Instrument and Chorus.
Bach made four versions of this “Passion”; Christophers’s performance, with an orchestra of 28 and a chorus of 26, was based on the final one, from 1749. The opening chorus, “Herr, unser Herrscher,” was restless but could have had more bite. And much of the solo singing seemed underpowered. Contralto Emily Marvosh struggled to be heard over the oboes in “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden”; soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad was a little better in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls.” Tenor Nicholas Mulroy made for a thin-voiced Evangelist.
Still, if Mulroy was orotund in his enunciation, he was never soporific, and he barely looked at his score, singing most of his part from memory. All the soloists, in fact, made good eye contact with the audience and sang with attention to the text. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s authoritative, almost patriarchal Jesus was appropriate for John’s Gospel, whose Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Baritone Woodrow Bynum was an engaged Pontius Pilate.
What distinguished this “St. John Passion,” however, was Christophers’s pacing and sense of theater. Every twist in the narrative was reflected in the performance. Each one of the hymn-tune chorales was different: “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” exploded off the page, “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück” was sober, almost shocked, “Er nahm alles wohl in acht” became a quiet tribute to Jesus’s last actions. The chorus’s role as both the crowd demanding Jesus’s death and as distraught sinners pleading for mercy underlined the idea that responsibility for Jesus’s crucifixion is universal. Even the emotional arc of the performance followed that of the narrative.
The chorus’s penultimate plea for rest, “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,” moved right along, Christophers having neither the time nor, more important, the inclination for mourning. This “St. John Passion” didn’t need to wait for the Resurrection; it ended in a chorale of affirmation and triumph.
Handel and Haydn SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, March 13
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.