Leading up to the season of Lent, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is to be lauded for not presenting an umpteenth reading of Handel's Messiah. Instead, it has opted for a rare performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St John Passion on last Friday at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
First performed in Leipzig in 1724, this was the earlier of two surviving passions, a setting of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and death as told in the Gospel Of John.
The passion and sacrifice of Christ are central tenets of the Christian faith. Bach was to colour the dramatic events in the most vivid and explicit musical language possible, with an aim to reinforce devotion and fervency in the believer, and instil pity and awe in everybody else. This was evangelism 18th century style, with the German composer as a most persuasive proselytiser.
Although the SSO is by no means a period performance ensemble, certain aspects of authenticity were observed by Lim Yau, the artistic director of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, who conducted this evening. He employed a small group of strings (12 violins, two cellos and one bass), obliggato flutes and oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, chamber organ, and delightful surprises: viola da gamba, a stringed instrument that dates back to the 15th century; and theorbo, an ancient fretted instrument strummed like a lute.
The orchestral textures were light and transparent even when loudness in volume was called for. Five vocal soloists were balanced by a 90-strong choir, hand-picked from the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Hallelujah Chorus and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chamber Choir. The opening chorus Herr, Unser Herrscher (Lord, Our Master) projected a rapt and gripping intensity, establishing the reverent tone from the outset.
The heavy-duty role of the Evangelist and narrator was helmed by Australian tenor Steve Davislim, whose clear ringing voice was a consistent pleasure. For those who do not understand German, surtitles in English were helpfully provided. Opposite him were bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering in a sympathetically portrayed, gravitas-laden Jesus, and baritone Martin Snell who commanded Pontius Pilate and the arias for low male voice.
While the triumvirate was rock solid in carrying the action, the women soloists, whose roles reflected the convictions of believers, had bit parts. Alto Lucia Cervoni's pivotal moment was in the aria Es Ist Vollbacht! (It Is Finished!), where the pall of death turns into triumphant victory. Soprano Nadine Lehner struggled in the highest registers of Zerfliesse, Mein Herze (Dissolve Then, My Heart), her dominance being usurped by excellent accompanying duo of flautist Evgueni Brokmiller and oboist Veda Lin Wei.
The two-hour epic was wisely performed without an interval, which would have ruined its continuity. Tireless throughout was the chorus, which distinguished with the ability to readily switch modes and moods. The gentle chorales were "simple" reassuring affirmations of faith, contrasted with the mob scenes and hypocritical high priests, represented by "complex" chromatics and fugal passages.
Whether believer or not, this was a well-judged performance that moved hearts and souls, not just by the music but also the care of its preparation. Surely, Bach's greater and longer St Matthew Passion cannot be too far away in the horizon.