Bach: St John & Matthew Passions

JS Bach: St John Passion
 The Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James’ Baroque, James O’Donnell
Westminster Abbey. 16 April 2019

JS Bach: St Matthew Passion
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square. 17 April 2019

Hearing Bach’s two best-known Passions on successive evenings in two nearby venues, and with contrasting performers, gave me a chance to compare aspects of the two Passions and performing styles. One was given by a choir with a 600-year history, the other by a choir approaching its 50th anniversary.  Both used period instrument orchestras. They were given in very different conditions to the performances of Bach’s day, and to very different groups of people – Bach to an involved congregation with a reasonable unified belief system, us as a passive audience with a variety of beliefs. However much a present-day believer might know the story that Bach sets to music, few will understand the context of early 18th-century Lutheran theological thought in Saxony. Non-believers or doubters will find the text at best puzzling, and at worse an illogical fabrication based on generations of earlier and equally illogical myth-makers.

The first of the pair of Passions was the more compact St John Passion, given in the towering Gothic surroundings of Westminster Abbey by their own choir, conducted by the Director of Music James O’Donnell, with Julian Stocker as the Evangelist and Robert Macdonald as Christus. All the solos came from members of the choir, which consisted of 21 rather young-looking boys and 12 men, the latter all professional singers. The choir was founded in the late 14th-century and along with its regular service duties is known international through its tours, recordings and ceremonial occasions. The orchestra was St James’ Baroque, founded in 1984 and closely associated with the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival). It is now directed by James O’Donnell. The orchestral forces were as expected, although there was no harpsichord, an instrument that appears to have been needed for the first performance in 1724, judging by Bach’s instructions for the harpsichord to be repaired.

The St John Passion opens with an orchestral introduction which has as many interpretations as there are performances. I often feel as though I can judge the mood of the entire piece from the way that a conductor balances the instrumental groups. On this occasion, the quietly murmuring strings allowed the pairs of oboes and the often unheard flutes to be heard, their awkwardly intertwining lines adding what seems to be an air of menace, aided by the repetitive thuds of the insistent continuo bass. The choir enters with cries of Herr before asking the dead Christ to show them the story of his Passion – one of many operatic devices used by Bach in both Passions.

The St Matthew Passion was performed by the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra choir and Baroque orchestra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore. In contrast to the lofty surroundings of Westminster Abbey, this was in St John’s, Smith Square, an early 18th concert hall (a former church) that dates from about the same time as Bach’s Passions. The two Leipzig churches that these Passions were performed in are mid-way in scale between the Abbey and St John’s. The Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche are both Gothic, but shorter and squarer that the Abbey and larger than St John’s. The acoustic of both is closer to St John’s than the Abbey. For the Ex Cathedra Matthew Passion, the Evangelist was Jeremy Budd, and Jesus Marcus Farnsworth. Other soloists were drawn from the 23-strong choir, several of whom were students.

The Matthew Passion is, arguably, intended for two orchestras and choirs. But the possible layout for the first performances in the Thomaskirche raises questions. There were two organs in Bach’s time, the main one at the liturgical west end, the other at the other end of the nave, on a gallery close to the chancel arch. Although it is generally assumed that both organs were used, with the choirs located close to each of them, I consider that to be unlikely, not least because of the problems of coordination. I suggest it was all performed from the west end, using the main organ as continuo for both choirs, which could have possibly been divided either side of the organ. It is not clear if there was room in the west-end gallery for a choir and orchestra to be positioned in front of the organ case. There is also the question of whether it was really for double choir, or for principal and secondary singers with a single unit. On this occasion, Jeffrey Skidmore arranged the two choirs and orchestra together in a single unit, but with a clear differentiation between Choir 1 on the left and Choir 2 on the right. There were two organs, and forces of 6,2,2,2 strings, viola da gamba, and two pairs of oboes (d’amore and da caccia) and flutes.

Both performances were excellent in every way. The key difference, apart from the effects of the space, was the use of boys trebles by the Westminster Abbey choir, making them closer to Bach’s sound world. It is unfair to compare the two talented youngsters who sang the two key treble arias with the far more experienced and professional sopranos of Ex Cathedra. It is also worth noting that Bach’s boy trebles were probably in their mid-teens, rather than (I guess) pre-teen. That said, there is something about a boys voice that seems to fit with Bach’s music.

Both conductors kept the pace up without any sense of speed, notably in the chorales where they both avoided the rather irritating habit of over-stressing the punctuation marks, other than by a brief articulation. Both conductors managed a wide range of volume, helping to highlight the musical architecture of both pieces. Both choirs produced excellent turbo crown scenes from their choirs. Both pieces have a key moment when an aria is accompanied by the plaintive sound of a viola da gamba, played by Mark Caudle at the Abbey and Richard Tunnicliffe at St John’s. Both used small chamber organs, with the Abbey’s having the advantage of full length 8′ open wooden pipes, making it more audible than the two organs at St John’s.