NEW YORK CITY: St. John Passion
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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

St. John Passion | Nicholas Phan, Amanda Forsythe, Christian Immler, Jesse Blumberg, Jeannette Sorrell & Apollo’s Fire

St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity Church

LISTENING TO THE ST. JOHN PASSION that Apollo’s Fire brought to St. Paul’s Chapel on March 12, I was reminded of John Eliot Gardiner’s observation that Bach in his sacred music created a “mutant form of opera.” In the Cleveland-based original-instrument group’s urgent performance, led by its founder Jeannette Sorrell, the music itself created a dramatic narrative. Bach’s manipulation of musical time for theatrical effect seemed to anticipate no composer so much as Richard Wagner. The sheer sonority of the performance underlined the connection: the Apollo’s Fire forces may have been modest in scale (nineteen instrumentalists, twenty-four singers) but in the chapel’s warm, intimate acoustic, luxurious in its effect.

Apollo’s Fire billed the performance as a “dramatic presentation.” In practice this meant that rather than remaining on the concert platform throughout, the soloists (save Nicholas Phan’s Evangelist) would make entrances and exits; when “offstage” they’d join the chorus in the church’s second-floor gallery. The most effective staging maneuver came at the opening of Part Two, when chorus members scattered themselves amongst us to offer the notorious interjections of the Jews. The tactic mitigated the racial tinge of the crowd’s vindictive pronouncements, implying that humanity in general needed to share the burden of the guilt.

The Evangelist is at the center of the oratorio: his is the voice that brings the whole elaborate assemblage into dramatic focus. Little wonder, then, that Phan dominated the proceedings. He delivered recitative with vigor, the text at times too crisply articulated to be the work of a native German speaker. His tone was occasionally raw, but always extraordinarily present: the voice gave visceral immediacy to the Evangelist’s utterances. Phan also took the work’s tenor arias, attacking “Ach, mein Sinn” with such vehemence that he sometimes lost pitch, but finding a consoling measure of sweetness when describing God’s grace in “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärber Rücken.” 

The limpidity of Amanda Forsythe’s soprano and the accuracy of her singing made a stunning effect, but I wished that she had brought more variety and inflection to her brilliantly projected sustained tones, and that in faster passages, she had bound individual, precisely intoned notes into a legato whole. Baritone Christian Immler made rough work of the florid “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen,” but sang the contemplative crucifixion-scene aria “Mein teurer Heiland” with welcome tenderness. The role of Jesus in the Johannes-Passion is small but inevitably crucial; baritone Jesse Blumberg brought nobility to every word.  —Fred Cohn 

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