Emmanuel Music offers a lithe, intimate take on Bach’s “St. John Passion”

March 22, 2015 at 1:44 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Ryan Turner led Emmanuel Music in Bach’s “St. John Passion” Saturday night.

For the religious-minded listener, nothing makes the Lenten season more palpable quite like Bach’s passion settings. Indeed those works seem to be the music of choice around Boston in this Bach anniversary year. Last month, Boston Baroque presented a moving rendition of the St. John Passion, and next week, the Handel and Haydn Society will offer the gargantuan St. Matthew Passion.

Saturday night at Emmanuel Church, Emmanuel Music offered their own take on the St. John Passion, a work that takes an intimate and dramatic look at the crucifixion and death of Christ.

Bach revised the piece multiple times, and Emmanuel Music offered listeners the fourth version, which reinserts episodes such as Peter’s weeping and the earthquake following Jesus’ death—elements borrowed from the Gospel of Matthew—back into the work.

Emmanuel Music’s performance of the St. John Passion was powerful in its depiction of the Christian story, with all forces of the choir and orchestra working together as a living, breathing organism.

Making up the meat of this work are the choruses and chorales, and the choir of Emmanuel Music sang it all with a soft delicacy. The contrapuntal lines of the opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” poured out in florid waves, and the phrases of “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” were crafted with tasteful dynamic contrast, the music resonating in the church’s spacious sanctuary.

With gentle waving gestures, conductor Ryan Turner led a bright, lithe reading of the work, a choice that infused the performance with energy but did not always leave room for Bach’s writing to flower.

In some moments, too, the drama felt a little flat. “Kreuzige,” where the chorus calls for Jesus’ crucifixion, was taken at a roiling tempo, but the chorus wasn’t able to mine the power and lightening from the moment.

But other passages, such as the penultimate chorus “Ruht wohl,” were sublime. Turner here showed that he is capable of shaping the music through colorful dynamic shading. The lines of the chorus, at times sung a cappella, flowed in sweet, funereal phrases.

The performance featured an excellent cast of soloists.

Tenor Matthew Anderson brought a clear, ringing voice to the role of the Evangelist that engendered sympathy for Christ’s demise. But he was also capable of bringing solid declamation to the part’s punishing high range. The phrases of “Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngen” seemed to cut through the soft orchestral textures that accompanied him.

Bass Dana Whiteside bought a sturdy presence to the role of Jesus, his many recitatives sounding full and stately to capture the innocence of a man on trial. His singing of “Ich habe frei” was robust and round in its delivery.

The chorus boasted several fine soloists. Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore sang the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” with smooth, dark tone. Soprano Brenna Wells rendered her lines in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen” with soft, radiant phrases. Soprano Krista River’s “Es ist vollbracht!,” was especially affecting, her singing taking on an aptly pained and anguished tone to bring out the emotional immediacy of Christ’s death.

Other standouts included tenor Jonas Budris, who sang “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter” with pearly tone, and soprano Roberta Anderson, whose aria “Zerfleiβe, mein Herze,” sounded with silky voice. The spacious phrases of “Betrachte, meine Seel” gave Branford Gleim given plenty of room for his sturdy bass voice to resonate, with a violin duo spinning silvery lines around him. Bass Paul Max Tipton was robust in the role of Pilate.

One could quarrel with the choice of mixing period and modern instruments, but doing so eliminated the problematic intonation that sometimes mars period-band performances. The Emmanuel Music orchestra was in fine form, playing Bach’s score with clarity and focus. Kudos, especially, to cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and organist Michael Beattie, who supplied sensitive continuo for the work’s many recitatives.

Emmanuel Music will present a chamber music concert, featuring music by Mendelssohn and Hugo Wolf, 4 p.m. April 12 at Emmanuel Church. emmanuelmusic.org


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