The Organ

Bach: St John Passion

Hereford Cathedral directed by Geraint Bowen
11th April 2006
St George's, Hanover Square, London directed by Laurence Cummings
14th April 2006

The seemingly inevitable connection between Bach and Easter meant that I attended two performances of the St John Passion within four days.

The first was under Geraint Bowen in Hereford Cathedral on Tuesday 11 April, drawing on the Cathedral choir for the chorus and smaller solo parts. The ample acoustic in the Cathedral is not very sympathetic to baroque music but by keeping the tempi fast and tight, and the rhythms of the Marches Baroque constantly bright, the dramatic edge was not lost. James Oxley is a secure Evangelist, conveying the narrative with authority and precision. Given that the chorus was entirely male - men and boys - and there is only one female soloist, Lucy Bowen shone like a beacon in a male world. The warmth and lightness of her tone was constantly pleasing. Solo orchestral work was sound, though there were occasional problems of pitch. Thankfully this did not disturb the overall impact.

On the following Friday I was in St George's Church, Hanover Square, for the London Handel Festival performance under Laurence Cummings. The more intimate surroundings and a mixed choir made for a very different impact. At times the choral sound was almost overwhelming, even though the forces were actually quite small. The London Handel Orchestra responded with aplomb to Laurence Cummings' handling of the score and the fact that he was leading from the organ - hurrah! - meant that the recitatives moved with great clarity and impact. It also allowed him to improvise during the choral and solo items to splendid effect. Robert Murray sang both Evangelist and tenor arias, and Christian Immler sang Christus and bass arias. This was unexpectedly interesting as it changed our relationship with the narrative itself. It appears to be Christ himself calling us to come to the cross, not a disembodied soloist.

Both performances were sung in German and both were for a paying audience during Holy Week. But there the similarity ends. No matter how real their spiritual potential, both events were 'sold' as musical performances and many in the audience would surely have been there simply to enjoy the glories of the score, regardless of any 'religious' connotations.

No problem in Hereford, but at St George's the Passion is given as part of a reconstituted service as it might have been in Bach's own time, using hymns and a Motet noted by the composer himself for a service in Leipzig in 1729. This adds a strange alienation effect to the proceedings. Are we now audience or congregation? When the hymns are sung do we take part or watch? Maybe we could go along with this on an historical basis and play the game, but the sermon is another matter. As preached this was simply an embarrassment. We are not a congregation, we are a paying audience and should not be required to submit ourselves to forced modern preaching. It might just have been acceptable if the preacher had used part of a sermon from the period to put the whole event in context, but references to football are anachronistic in the extreme mid-way through Bach's masterpiece.