Lloyd Schwartz, The Boston Phoenix | March 12, 2008
As part of Emmanuel Music’s season devoted to Bach, the late Craig Smith was going to conduct Bach’s “other” Passion, the St. John. Emmanuel’s associate conductor, Michael Beattie, stepped in and led the Emmanuel Orchestra and Chorus and nine aria soloists, all drawn from the chorus, in a deeply spiritual performance that left the large audience stunned and cheering. The St. John Passion is more turbulent and less uplifting than the longer and warmer St. Matthew. Its fast-moving narrative is troubled by anti-Semitism, which Emmanuel’s acting artistic director, composer John Harbison, and tenor Charles Blandy (the St. John Evangelist) discussed before the concert. (A rabbi also scheduled to participate had to cancel.) Harbison said that “the Jews” in the Gospel who demanded Jesus’s crucifixion really referred to the Judeans (since Jesus and his disciples, though members of a radical sect, were already Jewish). And that Bach’s choice of the Passion chorales, the personal musical responses to the Gospel narrative (for some of which Bach himself may have written the words), suggested he was more concerned with universal guilt than with blaming one particular group.
Beattie led the opening chorus, a prayer to the Son of God to show us that he has been transfigured by his passion, with restless urgency and agitation. The oboes of Peggy Pearson and Barbara LaFitte broke through like voices crying in the wilderness. Blandy was an imposing Evangelist, his focused tenor an ideal vehicle for plain-spoken clarity — which only intensified the most painful moments, in which Bach adds anguished curlicues describing Peter’s “bitter weeping” or the scourging of Jesus. The soft-edged reverb of bass-baritone Paul Guttry’s Jesus came with a kind of built-in halo, though he sounded more like God the Father than a son.
Tormented obbligato oboes surrounded mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal’s aria about the paradoxes of sin and redemption (“Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” — “From the knots of my sins”). Gently flowing flutes (Jacqueline DeVoe and Peggy Freidland) helped liberate nightingale-voiced soprano Kristen Watson in her aria about following Jesus with happy steps. Michael Sponseller’s organ mirrored bass Sumner Thompson’s rushing us to Golgotha. Laura Jeppesen’s gamba consoled mezzo-soprano Krista River’s depiction of the crucifixion; Raphael Popper-Kaizer’s cello reflected Aaron Engebreth’s poignant questioning of whether the crucifixion has freed him from death; and flute, oboe, and organ wept along with soprano Kendra Colton’s “Zerfließe, mein Herz” (“Dissolve, my heart”). Sweet and/or powerful arias came from tenors Frank Kelley and Jason McStoots and bass Mark McSweeney, and there was eloquent accompaniment by Olav Chris Henriksen (lute) and the entire orchestra.Before the conventional final chorale comes the great chorus “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), a prayer both to and for the crucified Jesus — a moment of the calmest serenity, really a lullaby, and the true resolution of this Passion. This was what Bach was leading to, the most cherishable moment in the St. John Passion and, for us, the moment to cherish most.