A Great Success
Antonio Pappano's St John Passion
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Usually, the National Academy of Santa Cecilia celebrates Easter and its related holidays with a grand concert of religious music. By 'grand', I mean a concert entailing the use of the symphony orchestra, chorus and soloists.
This year the choice fell on Bach's St John Passion, an oratorio that since 1950 has been performed some twenty times in the concert subscription series of the Academy, even though worldwide is generally less played than the better known St Matthew Passion.
The St John Passion has had a complicated composition and performance history. Bach intended that it would be first performed at St Thomas Church in Leipzig, but due to a last-minute change by the council governing music in the city, it was first performed on Good Friday (as observed by German Protestants) 1724 in St Nicholas Church as a part of the religious service, shortly after Bach's 39th birthday. Bach quickly agreed to their desire to move the concert to St Nicholas Church, where some adjustments had to be made. At the first performance, the St John Passion was less than a full success because it was considered too innovative. Bach revised it several times before producing a final version in the 1740s. Alternate numbers that Bach introduced in 1725 but later removed can be found in the appendix to scores of the work. The National Academy of Santa Cecilia performed what is considered 'the reference version': the 1724 score with interpolations from later versions.
The St John Passion is written for an intimate ensemble of soloists, a four-part choir, strings and basso continuo and pairs of flauti traversi and oboes. For special colours, Bach also used lute, viola d'amore and viola da gamba, instruments that were already old-fashioned at the time. In present day performances, the part of Jesus is given to one bass soloist, Pilate and the bass arias to another. A tenor sings the Evangelist — a very demanding part — and the arias. The smaller parts (Peter, a maid and a servant) are sometimes performed by members of the choir.
Bach followed chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of St John in the Luther Bible: the Evangelist follows exactly the words of that Bible. Bach added two lines from the Gospel of St Matthew — the crying of Peter and the tearing of the curtain in the temple.
I started with this background information and not with my review of the performance because the St John Passion has not been reviewed often in Music & Vision over the last few years. In short, the St John Passion was conceived for congregational use in a medium-size Lutheran Church, not for a huge three thousand seat auditorium like that of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.
Andrea Staples was the high texture Evangelist, a grueling role. Roderick Williams was Jesus, Christian Gerhaher, Peter and Pilate. Lyric soprano Lucy Crowe and mezzo-alto Ann Hallenberg sang the various arias for female voices.