Bach’s St. John Passion with a star-studded lineup of soprano Johennette Zomer, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor Mark Padmore, and bass Klaus Mertens, conducted by Ton Koopman, was bound to be—and indeed was—an enjoyable affair. A little over two years ago the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performed the B-minor Mass with him, now they tackled the ‘smaller’ Passion.
The woodwind voices of the massive opening (from the usually performed 1724/49 version) stood out above a muted sea of irresistible basso continuo and strings that surged only to sweep the chorus to its entry. Stoic Joachim Held’s lute and gambist Frederike Heumann were more visual than an acoustic nod to historical performance practice. Only during the arias and the long bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seele”—joined by a duo of viole d’amore—did they come to the fore. The reduced modern instrument forces of the orchestra crafted a fine mix of delicate restraint and liveliness—if more of the former than the latter.
Andreas Scholl’s first of two arias, “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden”, was effortful beauty—if one puts it kindly. With ungainly strain in the high notes, this far below what we know he is capable of from his two (three, if you count a dutch version) commercial recordings (Corboz and Herreweghe II in the 1725 version). “Es ist vollbracht”, the second time the alto ‘soloist’ is called upon, was much improved. Johannette Zomer, that energetic Bach siren, was her uniquely enchanting best. Strident, her voice is, even piercing perhaps—but never harsh. Klaus Mertens remains the unflinching, sonorous gentleman bass who never resorts to rumbling as some colleagues his age do.
Mark Padmore stood out even amid the impressive quartet (a quintet, if we count the pleasantly resonant Mathias Hausmann who acquitted himself impressively of his Pilatus-duties). Padmore was agile and expressive, extraordinarily strong-voiced, and delivered his part with baritonal comfort. Even as some of this security deteriorated toward the end, he still finished at a level most evangelists don’t ever reach. The BR Chorus, the jewel at the heart of this concert, is uniquely suited for such large-but-detailed choral performances… and the joy of singing Bach in some of their faces was of prayer-like beauty.