Back Bay Chorale delivers a polished and uplifting “St. John Passion”
When conductor Scott Allen Jarrett first cued the chorus in the Back Bay Chorale’s performance of Bach’s The Passion According to St. John at Sanders Theatre Saturday night, the singers entered heavy-footed, seemingly emphasizing each note instead of singing a long line. A listener might have thought, if this is how this group sings, it’s going to be a long night.
But it turned out to be a perfectly appropriate way to beseech the Almighty to teach believers by the example of his suffering. Later, the same singers would put a dark velvet cushion under Sumner Thompson’s gleaming bass in the aria Mein teurer Heiland, lass dich fragen, fugue effervescently in the chorus Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen, bark with frenzy in Kreutzige, kreutzige! (Crucify, crucify!), and give a simple, flowing piety to the old chorale tunes that reflect on the meaning of the passion story. In the end, the Back Bay singers brought such a variety of colors and sonic effects to Bach’s musical drama, combined with first-rate vocal soloists and some fine individual turns in the freelance orchestra, that one wished the night could have gone on longer.
The chorus left little to be desired technically, except perhaps to emulate the crystal-clear German diction the soloists brought to the performance. They securely negotiated most of the score’s notorious difficulties, such as the rapid interjections of the word Wohin? (Where?) in the bass aria Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen and (coming near the end of a long night of singing) the repeated high, soft entrances of the sopranos in the chorus Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine.
The work’s Part Two, after intermission, showed the soloists to better advantage than Part One, partly because of the arrival of bass Thompson as Pilate. In the role of the arrogant yet troubled ruler, Thompson added an imperious edge to his already powerful and focused voice, hyper-articulating the German text, yet also withdrawing convincingly into Pilate’s moments of intellectual doubt. Out of character, in the poetic bass arias, he added an appealing vocal flexibility to his polished-bronze tone and smoothly-projected diction.
As Jesus, baritone Paul Max Tipton sang with a mysterious, covered tone, almost hollow-sounding at times, so that his enigmatic exchanges with the high priest and Pilate came to sound like a dialogue between this world and the next. Tipton’s restrained performance kept the emphasis where it belongs in this work, not on the central character but on the onlookers’ reactions to him.
Tenor Dann Coakwell managed the high leaps and swoops of the Evangelist’s recitatives with conversational ease, somewhat underplaying the dramatic narrative, so that the occasional bursts of gnarly melisma on phrases such as weinete bitterlich (wept bitterly) came as a surprise.
The other three soloists made valuable contributions, particularly soprano Margot Rood, whose exceptionally liquid and sweet voice leavened the dark proceedings with a lively, almost flirtatious rendering of the early aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten, and later gave a delicate poignancy to Zerflisse, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren.
In a rare instance of misjudged balance, the attractive voice of mezzo-soprano Emily Marvosh was somewhat obscured early on by the accompanying oboes and bassoon in Von den Stricken meiner Sünden. Later, however, she combined touchingly with a sighing viola da gamba solo by Laura Jeppesen in Es ist vollbracht!, a rapt meditation on the Crucifixion.
Similarly, tenor Aaron Sheehan struggled to vocalize convincingly amid the jerky, agitated rhythms of Ach, mein Sinn, but later displayed a fine, creamy tone throughout his range in Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken, combining with the sister violin duo of Heidi Braun-Hill and Heather Braun, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and organist Justin Thomas Blackwell to create an exquisitely intimate moment as the muted violins dwindled to a mere shimmer of “the most beautiful rainbow…God’s sign of grace.”
Conductor Jarrett managed the proceedings without a baton and with admirable economy, the occasional pinching or pointing gesture being enough to bring the desired emphasis from his well-drilled chorus and the orchestra of experienced Boston-area freelancers. The individual character of each movement—the cradle-rocking rhythm of the chorus Ruht wohl, for example—was duly noted, but never overdone. And the discreet support of organist Blackwell provided a firm foundation throughout the performance.
The next performance of the Back Bay Chorale is Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) at Sanders Theatre, Sat., May 5 at 8 p.m. bbcboston.org. 617-496-2222.
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