Under Christophers, the chorus excels in Handel and Haydn’s compelling “St. John Passion”

March 12, 2016 at 2:56 pm

By David Wright

Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society in Bach's "St. John Passion" Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Kat Waterman

Harry Christophers led the Handel and Haydn Society in Bach’s “St. John Passion” Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Kat Waterman

Raging one moment and meditating the next, the chorus is the star of J.S. Bach’s The Passion According to St. John.  Friday night in Symphony Hall, the Handel and Haydn Society’s chorus gave a star-caliber performance in close collaboration with vocal soloists and the Society’s orchestra under artistic director Harry Christophers.

Of Bach’s two surviving Passions, the St. John is the more reflective and less dramatic, but one would never have known that from the agitated orchestral opening or the chorus’s stark entrance on cries of “Herr!” (Lord!) in Friday’s performance.  

Christophers set a slower than usual tempo in this chorus, heightening the suspense and the feeling that world-shaking events were about to occur. The lean, “period” sound of scurrying violins, throbbing lower strings, and keening oboes provided a darkly cinematic backdrop to the chorus’s appeal to Christ to “show us” (Zeig uns) the meaning of His passion and death.

Greater choral glories were to come.  The virtuoso whiplash counterpoint of this work’s turba choruses—that is, the scenes of the angry crowd demanding Jesus’s death—is a distinctive feature, and the Handel and Haydn singers performed it brilliantly and with dazzling precision.

More remarkable, perhaps, was their treatment of the chorales (hymns) that interrupt the action to offer a prayer or reflect on the meaning of the story. Originally intended as accompaniment to congregational singing, these sections are often sung rather straightforwardly even in modern performances.

But they also offer opportunities for interpretation that Christophers and the chorus seized on Friday night.  The 25 choristers fit the performance to the text almost as an individual singer would, dipping into a broad palette of tone color, articulation and inflection to give each chorale its own expressive character.

Amid the drama of the prologue and the later crowd scenes, Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist played the objective observer most of the time, more BBC than bard, though to say so is to take nothing away from the expressive phrasing and lively speech rhythms of his long recitatives.

Accompanying Mulroy and others, the basso continuo led by organist Ian Watson gave virtually a master class in recitative playing, seeming to breathe with the singers and anticipating their every spurt and hesitation, all with the goal of not being noticed at all.  

Although the ability of the Handel and Haydn Society to fill the seats in Symphony Hall was impressive, one couldn’t help thinking that Mulroy, with his admirably clear and flexible but not large voice—and other performers such as contralto Emily Marvosh and flutist Wendy Rolfe—would have been heard to better advantage in a more intimate setting.

The Jesus of John’s gospel is as much a theological construct as a living person, a figure who speaks in riddles and whose kingdom is “not of this world.”  In bass-baritone Matthew Brook’s forthright performance, Jesus was a strong if enigmatic human presence, taking charge in the chaotic garden scene of Part I and calmly parrying Pilate’s questions in Part II.

Stepping out of the chorus to sing the role of Pilate, baritone Woodrow Bynum proved a worthy antagonist to Brook’s Jesus, with sturdy vocalizing and a touch of imperious bark to his German diction even as he was flummoxed by this strange, unnerving prisoner and the unruly crowd outside.

In this performance’s division of vocal labor, the singers in the roles of the Evangelist and Jesus stepped out of character to sing, respectively, the tenor and bass commentaries as well. 

Tenor Mulroy maintained his cool demeanor in these, not generating much fire in the aria “Ach, mein Sinn,” but later bringing a rapt, dreamlike quality to “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken,” combining with the muted violins of Christina Day Martinson and Susanna Ogata to weave an evanescent vision of “the most beautiful rainbow…a sign of God’s mercy.”

Immediately preceding the latter aria, the same two violinists accompanied bass-baritone Brook in a touchingly halting performance of the meditation “Betrachte, meine Seel.”  The bass-baritone sounded a more urgent note in the aria “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tormented souls), in which the rapid choral interjections of “Wohin?” (Where?) were uncannily soft, like echoes of disembodied souls.

Chorus members Marvosh and Sonja DuToit Tengblad contributed the contralto and soprano arias, respectively, with elegant Baroque style and wide expressive range. 

Tengblad’s bell-like voice easily projected through the large hall over flutist Rolfe’s soft-edged obbligato in the lively, charming aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten.”  If shouting “Brava!” were allowed during a Passion, Tengblad would likely have garnered a few for the unerring phrasing, floating high notes, and touching expression of her performance (with two mellow flutes obbligati) in the post-Crucifixion aria “Zerflisse, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren.”

Some initial balance problems between Marvosh’s luminous contralto and the piercing tone of two oboes were adjusted during the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden.”  Later Marvosh and viola da gamba player Shirley Hunt left a lasting impression in the literally crucial aria Es ist vollbracht!, an alternately solemn and triumphant meditation at the moment of Jesus’s death. 

Other chorus singers who made well-characterized brief contributions to the drama included baritone Bradford Gleim as Peter denying he knows Jesus and soprano Elissa Alvarez and tenors Marco de Oliveira and Jonas Budris as household servants of the high priest.

Conductor Christophers shaped and paced the whole with broad gestures, driving ahead at times in a brisk, period-instrument style, but unafraid to linger at the drama’s turning points. 

He was also unafraid of unconventional choices, such as interpreting the work’s last chorus, “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,” as not so much a disconsolate lullaby as an emergence into the light.  (The second line translates as “I shall weep for you no more.”)

It served as a reminder that performances as coherent and compelling as this one don’t just happen, but are the product of a driving vision.  Harry Christophers clearly had supplied plenty of that in the preparation for Friday night.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sundayhandelandhaydn.org617-266-3605.

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One Response to “Under Christophers, the chorus excels in Handel and Haydn’s compelling “St. John Passion””

  1. Posted Mar 13, 2016 at 10:12 pm by Diana Marsh

    March 13th performance at Symphony Hall was exquisite! Conductor Christophers’ attention to every detail brought the Passion to a new height which translated into a very special experience.