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Passion for Bach

press homeJohn isn’t so bad.  Actually John is accessible, enjoyable, and well worth knowing.  Unfortunately, John has a big brother named Matt – and we all know how that story goes.

It is the same deal with music.  Johann Sebastian Bach wrote five musical Passions, basically choral works about the final days of Jesus, but only two have come down to us intact.  The St. John Passion is a great work, but it lives in the shadow of the St Matthew Passion, which calls for a double chorus and a children’s chorus, has an elaborate structure and all sorts of musical effects.  When Felix Mendelssohn kicked off that whole Bach revival in the early nineteenth century, it was with a performance of the St Matthew Passion, so the larger work made it into the history books as well.

Meanwhile that other Passion has languished to a point, but the recent concert by the Washington Bach Consort at the National Presbyterian Church put this somewhat neglected work in the spotlight.  As we get into the Lenten season, this is a piece well worth knowing and hearing performed more often. 

If you want sheer beauty, it is hard to beat the St Matthew Passion, but for a more dramatic telling of this story, get to know the St John Passion.  Plus the St. John Passion calls for smaller forces and runs a little over two hours if you do not include the intermission – a decent performance of the Matthew Passion easily runs over three hours without cuts or a break.  Being the little brother has some advantages.

You can tell the differences right from the opening choruses.  The St Matthew Passion has a huge opening using the full chorus and orchestra for a breathtaking beginning.  St John opens with a shorter chorus that is more somber and funereal.  It then dives right into the Garden of Gethsemane sequence without further ado.  While there are reflective arias throughout the piece, the St. John Passion cuts right to the chase.

The Washington Bach Consort uses period instruments but if you still worry about scratchy strings and out of tune winds, rest assured that this ensemble plays very well.  They also keep the musical forces fairly close to what Bach would have used – about a dozen voices in the chorus and about two dozen instruments. 

The lion share of the vocal chores went to Rufus Muller as the Evangelist and Richard Giarusso as Jesus, both singing without scores.  Their job is to recite the text from the Gospel, but Giarusso adds a lot of emotion as Jesus experiences his final journey.  Meanwhile Muller adds variety and drama to what could be dry narrative text, especially when Bach uses the music to depict Peter’s sadness after his denial and later during the scourging scene. 

The other roles are taken by members of the chorus.  At times this is a brief one line interjection, but bass Jon Bruno does well in an extended sequence as Pilate.  Other soloists from the chorus perform the arias in the text, and conductor J Reilly Lewis has them come down to the stage for their numbers while solo instrumentalists also stand.   All are good but mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead does well with her final aria “It is Finished,” which is contemplative until suddenly bursting with anger, while soprano Laura Choi Stuart has a lovely and surprisingly upbeat opening aria “I follow you likewise.”

But it is the chorus that is the main player here – probing during the Denial by Peter scenes in the first part and often furious as the mob in the second half.  The two dozen singers of the Consort do a very good job with these changing moods and conductor Lewis keeps a firm grip on the structure and tempo of this piece.

If the final sections of the St, John Passion tend to have an unvarying mood, that is often the nature of these pieces – the same comment can be leveled at the St Matthew Passion too.  Both are great works and it is good to finally hear that other Passion by Bach, which stands a little in the shade of its more famous brethren.

The final concert by the Washington Bach Consort will be on May 4, and it will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Bach’s most famous musical son – CPE Bach – with both instrumental and choral works.  For more information, call 202 429-2121 or go online to http://www.bachconsort.org/

3 stars.

By David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic

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