Coming after Ludovic Morlot’s superb performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion a few days ago, this weekend’s presentation of the composer’s St. John Passion by Pacific MusicWorks in Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall concludes an innovative and deeply satisfying collaboration between Stephen Stubbs’ early-music ensemble and Morlot’s Seattle Symphony.
The two conductors decided to present Bach’s sharply contrasted setting of the Passion story — the St. Matthew richly contemplative in tone and monumental in scale, the St. John more compact and more succinctly dramatic — in similarly contrasted performances. One fascinating aspect of the plan was that the same group of vocal soloists was employed in both works.
The assignment of dramatic roles to those soloists, however, differed in the two works. And whereas Morlot entrusted the chorales and other choral numbers of the St. Matthew setting to roughly 50 members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Stubbs has his St. John soloists serving also as chorus, singing with just two voices to each solo part, as was the practice in at least some of Bach’s own performances.
For anyone attending on both weekends, Saturday’s enthralling account of the St. John Passion must surely have demonstrated that bigger, while it offers its own legitimate satisfactions, is not necessarily better. Not only were the soloists’ changing achievements illuminated: it was clear that the contrasting characteristics of Benaroya Hall’s two auditoriums played a major role in the change.
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Last week’s solos attained a standard that could hardly have been surpassed, or even equaled, by any group of singers that might have been assembled. Yet some of the soloists were still more impressive this time around.
One especially striking difference was that between the contributions of the two Evangelists. Both are front-rank exponents of the part, but the immediacy of Charles Daniels’ riveting narration benefitted notably from what might be called the built-in intimacy of Nordstrom Hall’s size and acoustics.
Tyler Duncan, an admirable Jesus last week, blossomed still further on Saturday in the St. John arias, while Matthew Brook, mostly restricted to the smaller dramatic roles in the St. Matthew, had room in the St. John to demonstrate profoundly moving artistry both as Jesus and in the arias. Nordstrom’s acoustics also enabled the young countertenor Terry Way to show that he is as persuasive in quiet music as in more forceful passages.
The period instruments of the Pacific MusicWorks orchestra were a delight to listen to, and meshed impeccably with the eight voices of the choral numbers. The obbligato viole d’amore parts in the bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel’,” were ravishingly played. Stubbs, himself again supplying delicate tone and stylish phrasing on the lute, paced the whole work to perfection, and ended it brilliantly by beginning the last chorale with just one voice to a part and then building to a climax of vocal splendor and compelling emotional power.
Altogether this was a performance that revealed the St. John Passion to be a greater work than I have thought it in the past. There is just one more chance to hear it.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org