St. John Passion
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St. John Passion

Teresa Wakim, Daniel Bubeck, Paul Max Tipton, Rufus Müller; Thomas Crawford & American Classical Orchestra, Chorus

THE AMERICAN CLASSICAL ORCHESTRA'S St. John Passion was not an ideally polished performance. The twenty-one-piece band was clearly an group of capable early-instrument musicians, but the moments of uncertain balance in the November 3 Alice Tully Hall performance made one suspect that they hadn’t been given the preparation time needed to let their individual efforts coalesce into a musical whole. Nonetheless, it was an affecting and exciting evening. In Thomas Crawford, the performance had a conductor who imposed a firm rhythmic framework on the music-making while allowing his forces to phrase freely and expressively. Crawford had the measure of the Passion; over its two hours it unfolded as a huge, propulsive statement.

The work of the ACO Chorus was especially fine. The group was small—sixteen strong—and entirely made up of professionals, with the evening’s aria soloists among the number. It negotiated Bach’s writing with a deftness and precision not available to New York’s large amateur assemblages, achieving exactly calibrated shifts of color from one number to the next. If anything, the chorus’s voicing of the Jews’ choruses was almost too vivid: in this performance, there was no denying the work’s vein of anti-Semitism; you could even hear rhythmic and harmonic anticipations of Wagner’s Nibelung music.  

The aria singers generally did not shine so brightly in their solo opportunities as in their group efforts. In some cases, I wondered why, given the opportunity to present great music to a New York audience, the singers hadn’t arrived better prepared. All held scores, and some were clearly reliant on them. I heard any number of florid runs unsurely intoned; several uncertain attempts to render Bach’s syncopations, and quite a few instances where a singer seemed unwilling or unable to move beyond a mere recitation of the notes toward a meaningful musical statement.

But two stood out. Teresa Wakim’s soprano in her two arias was not always securely on pitch: its pinpoint, vibrato-less focus allowed no camouflage for intonational shortcomings. But her rhythmic alacrity and the alertness of her manner counted for a lot. She phrased florid passages with a real sense of purpose, and consistently provided not only the “what” but the “why” of Bach’s writing. Countertenor Daniel Bubeck, singing the work’s two alto arias, had a bad outing in the first, “Von der Stricken meiner Sünden,” his nose buried in the score; his fragile sound swamped by the two oboists. But he came into his own with “Es ist vollbracht” at the death of Jesus, delivering a nimbus of haunted, sepulchral sound that evoked the mystery of the Biblical moment.

The baritone of Paul Max Tipton, as Jesus, was occasionally unsteady in its lower reaches. But in the final sequences, Tipton summoned a beauty of tone that conveyed a sense of Christ’s transcendence of suffering. The Passion’s central role, though, is that of the Evangelist, here beautifully rendered by tenor Rufus Müller. He did not have an easy time on high—a number of cracks at the register break signaled that he was having trouble finding access to his head voice, and some notes that called for a mixed voice emerged as pure falsetto. But lower down, his tone was plangent and expressive, and throughout, his treatment of the German text was exemplary. This Evangelist truly had a story to tell us; he told it with urgency and, yes, passion.  —Fred Cohn 

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