Polyphony’s Good Friday performance of Bach’s St John Passion has become an annual fixture, but there was no suggestion of routine about this Easter’s vital account under the choir’s founder-conductor Stephen Layton. Performed without an interval but with a couple of pauses – including a moment of meditative silence following Jesus’s death – the two-hour-long structure of choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives maintained consistent impetus and impact.
The forces used – 27 in the choir, with 24 members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanying them – worked well both for the piece and the acoustic, though the orchestra’s strings were less neat in articulating Bach’s sometimes frantic figurations than the choir. The latter were on superb form, producing a bold and focused tone that gave their dramatic interventions as the Jewish crowd – a subject of fierce musicological debate in recent years, though originating in the Gospel text rather than an 18th-century addition to it – a terrifying vehemence.
The soloists formed an impressive team. Ian Bostridge’s plangent tenor brought keen intensity to the Evangelist’s intricately inflected narration, and made expressive highlights of such emotion-laden gestures as Simon Peter’s bitter weeping. Neal Davies’s substantial tone and constant engagement with the text conveyed a deeply human Christus. In her first aria, Katherine Watson’s limpid soprano was gracefully complemented by the gentle luminosity of the OAE’s flautists; the ensemble’s woodwind, indeed, were marvellous throughout.
Iestyn Davies’s mellifluous counter-tenor answered all the solo alto needs. Nicholas Mulroy made his way somewhat gingerly through his first aria, but managed the implacable requirements of the second – which would test any soloist’s breath control to the limit – with outstanding skill. Roderick Williams gave Pilate’s interrogation a steady reasonableness, while his solos were notable for their calm and resolute authority.