JS Bach’s St John Passion got its first airing on Good Friday in 1724 at St Nicholas Church, in Leipzig. It’s not so much an oratorio as a musical drama, almost operatic in form and structure. The central figure is the Evangelist, who narrates the story of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial, including Peter’s threefold denial, constantly drawing on direct quotes from the other main characters – Jesus and Pilate.

Canberra International Music FestivalBach’s St John Passion at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

Interestingly, two key elements are omitted from the story – the roles of the two thieves crucified with Christ, and Christ’s resurrection, which is central to Christians’ belief in the promise of salvation.

But, far from the story finishing darkly, it concludes with messages of hope, faith and praise, albeit quietly and reverently.

For this performance the orchestral accompaniment was provided by Bach Akademie Australia, playing period instruments and led by Madeleine Easton, with a chorus of eight singers, all of whom had solo parts. Basses David Greco and Jeremy Kleeman played Pilate and Jesus respectively. An added voice was tenor, Andrew Goodwin, who played the Evangelist. Harpsichordist Korneel Bernolet directed the performance.

Unfortunately, the performance did not get off to a good start. The orchestral introduction was scrappy, sounding like a room of chattering people, and the opening chorus sounded more like eight soloists competing to be heard above each other than a blend of voices. Soon after, in Anna Fraser’s alto aria, To untie me from the knots of my sins, the instruments overpowered her quite rich voice.

After those initial woes, however, the performance crystallised into a marvellously. expressively blended whole, bringing great sensitivity, drama, and – well – passion to the mood of the piece.  The quite beautiful voice of soprano Amy Moore in her aria, Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears, certainly dissolved the hearts of her audience with her crystal-clear bell-like timbre.

Especially moving was the point when Jesus, in his second to last breath, cries, “It is accomplished.” High drama follows, when the Evangelist quotes from Matthew’s Gospel that, “the curtain in the temple was torn in two pieces from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the cliffs were rent, and the graves opened up, and many bodies of saints arose.”

All three of the lead characters bound the performance together with consummate skill and emotion. Goodwin, as the Evangelist, has a fine, clear voice that carried well throughout the space and his expressive voice told the story clearly and with great sensitivity. In a sense, it would not have mattered if the English surtitles were not provided, for, even in German, his ability to put himself into his role conveyed the narrative with great feeling.

Korneel Bernolet conducted the performance from the harpsichord and drew an understated sense of serenity, with touches of solemnity and sadness, as well as drama and hope from his musicians. He painted vivid images with his expression and sensitivity, underscoring the many moods of the work.

This almost two-hour performance was given without a break – a test for any audience (not to mention musicians). But the performance was such that it held the audience almost breathless throughout. In the end, it was a standing ovation for what became an evening of very fine music-making.

The Canberra International Music Festival takes place at venues around Canberra until May 12


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