Johann Sebastian Bach’s largest scale works… the b minor mass and the two famous passions, are towering masterpieces deserving a unique place in musical history. So, when the chance to hear the American Bach Soloists perform the St John Passion came along, I jumped at the opportunity.
The St John Passion sometimes has the reputation of being the “ugly step-sister” of the incredible St Matthew Passion. In Bach’s defense though, the St John account suffered from the lack of a good librettist, which he had in “Picander” who supplied the text for his elegant setting of the Matthew. What the St John Passion lacks in lyrical expression though, it more than makes up for in drama.
Additionally, in contrast to the St Matthew, there are no less than four different versions of the St John, so there is no true “definitive” version of the work. The ABS chose to use the second version of 1725 for this performance.
The American Bach Soloists performance was quite simply, one of the best performances of a Bach choral work I have ever heard. I thoroughly enjoyed Jeffrey Thomas’ unfussy yet expressive conducting style. In many performances of Bach’s choral works, the singing of the chorales seems to be a necessary annoyance, sung more out of a sense of duty than anything else. This performance was notable for the highly expressive singing of the chorales… it seemed that as much attention to detail had been taken with the chorales as with all of the other parts of the work.
The soloists in this performances were outstanding. Aaron Sheehan carried the taxing Evangelist role with ease. And ABS veteran William Sharpe lent his expressive singing to the role of Jesus. Also notable was the young countertenor Brennan Hall, who should have a brilliant career ahead of him.
Kudos to Maestro Thomas and his crew for a most satisfying performance. Looking forward the ABS “Mass in b minor” performance this summer. Check it out!