thoughts on JS Bach’s St John Passion

This weekend is devoted to JS Bach’s St John Passion – we’re performing it tomorrow evening at St Michael and All Angels, Bath Road, London W4 1TT. So inevitably I’ve been reflecting on the essence of this extraordinary piece, and how best to do justice to the score. The St Matthew, which we performed as part of our long-running Bach project in February 2012, is the more expansive account of the Passion story – and for many Bach lovers it’s the preferred Passion of the two. So what does the St John have going for it? Well, it’s intensely dramatic; – there’s acres of Evangelical recitative, punctuated by stunning outbursts from the chorus, variously in the guises of chief priests, Jews and Roman soldiers. So key to getting it right will be the pacing of the narrative, which it seems to me should maintain its momentum right up to the moment of Jesus’s death on the Cross (no.31).

Leading us through the drama are the solo singers, or “concertists”, although they have more than just one role to play. The bass soloist for example has not only the words of Jesus to sing, but also the arias and choruses; – that much is clear from Bach’s original intentions in the original manuscript part. Quite a challenge for a solo singer to switch personas in this way, and even more so for the chorus to be an out-of control mob baying for Jesus to be crucified one moment, and grieving contemporary Christians the next (as in the transition from no 21d “Kreuzige!” and no 21f “Wir haben ein Gesetz” to the radiant chorale no 22 “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn.” But that doesn’t mean that we should duck the issue by asking soloists to sit out the chorus sections, or for chorales to be played rather than sung for the sake of dramatic convenience, as was the case in a recent Passion staging at the National Theatre (I really am not a fan of these). On the contrary, – this shift in perspectives between third and first person, and between the Passion story and the present, is one of the things that make this Passion narrative so startling.

If I’m emphasising the drama at the expense of the music here, that’s because it’s clear to me what should take priority. Everyone know what a supreme musical craftsman Bach was, but the standout feature of the St John Passion isn’t the music at all;– it’s the way he puts his astonishing musical skills entirely at the service of the Passion story. This is a gripping, at times terrifying, narrative -– for me the way Bach illuminates the account in John’s Gospel of Jesus’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death is more vivid than any other musical work before or since.

Once again we’re raising money for an excellent local charity, the Upper Room. It would be great to see you at the performance.