Dramatically astute interpretation of Bach’s almost-operatic masterpiece.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
March 31, 2015

‘Tis the season to be less than jolly (at least until Sunday) and while the general gloominess of ANZAC memorials seem to have rather hijacked Jesus this year, there is still room for a bit of passion as this taut reading of Bach’s first surviving outing in the genre proved. The St. John may not be as emotionally searching as the subsequent St. Matthew, but as Brett Weymark’s well- paced account eloquently demonstrated, this was perhaps the closest Johann Sebastian Bach came to writing an opera – and an intense, confrontational one at that.

In his excellent program note Weymark draws attention to the libretto’s apparent desire to make us reflect on the suffering of Christ and to see in it specific parallels to our own lives, filled as they are with daily horrors, images of violence and situations where the truth is not always what prevails. In short, this is a surprising contemporary work and one that in the right hands packs an emotional punch.

There is a terrific sense of the wheel of fate inexorably turning about the orchestral introduction and its heartfelt plea of Herr, unser Herrscher – surely one of the most remarkable movements that Bach ever penned. Weymark set it turning in style, his choir producing a good, solid sound with plenty of soprano heft on the higher “Herrs”. The curse of the Sydney Opera House sound-bucket swallowed up some of the articulation, and some of the individual chorus entries could have been stronger to compensate for the swimmy acoustic (I could have handled more from the tenors), but the overall effect was appropriate to the dramatic moment.

Throughout the evening Weymark demonstrated a nuanced sense of the choral line, his singers responding with disciplined attention to detail especially with respect to the placement of consonants, which in Bach’s more multi-textured part writing are apt to go astray. His decision to divide his forces into a ‘congregation’ of around 100 singers and a ‘crowd’ of about 30 ensured there was plenty of variety and a real sense of debate (both rhetorical and dramatic) going on. His shaping of the reflective chorales was particularly skilled. Meanwhile, the orchestra assembled for the evening included a fine continuo section (Tommie Andersson on lute, Kate Golla on organ, Chris Cartner on harpsichord and Anthea Cottee on gamba) as well as a nice line up of woodwind (the flutes and oboes wisely stood at times to ensure their parts came across).

With his high, flexible tone, Paul McMahon’s Evangelist was vocally right on the money. Blessed with excellent diction, he put the story across in considerable style, perhaps a little light at the bottom and an ounce short on visible panache (he could have pinned us to the back of our seats if he’d come out from behind his music stand a bit more), but making up for it in attention to text. Simon Lobelson matched him as a Christus graced with presence and singing with firm tone.

The two female soloists were terrific. Fiona Campbell delivered her arias with a beautifully warm mezzo, occasionally disappearing beneath the orchestral waves but always alert to message. Her Es ist vollbracht was appropriately the concert’s emotional highpoint. Nicole Car had no trouble coming across the orchestra, her first aria with flutes (Ich folge dir gleichfalls) a glittering affair sung with taste and flair. Her second aria was equally clear and noble of line.

The tenor soloist, Robert Macfarlane displayed a lovely, lyrical instrument, coping well with the angular demands of Ach, mein Sinn and offering a warmly eloquent Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt, possibly the most radiant aria in the work. He was inclined to be a little histrionic in manner, but at least he ‘went for it’. Andrew Collis made a characterful, rich-toned Pilatus though he struggled somewhat in his arias (both of which seemed to be going a little fast for comfort).

Perhaps the most exciting moments though were the crowd scenes (the Barabbas exchange was riveting), grippingly paced by Weymark and with the SPC semi-chorus relishing their opportunities as rabid priests and similarly like-minded folk. Yes, the St. John Passion sails close to the wind in its portrayal of the Jews, but at the end of the day it’s Bach’s overwhelming humanity that brings it safe to shore, as displayed here in a final chorus of profound reflection.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs performs the St. John Passion at Sydney Opera House at 2pm on Saturday April 4