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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1650-1750): St John Passion (BWV 245)
Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, soprano; Maarten Engeltjes, alto; Tilman Lichdi, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir/Ton Koopman
concert: March 16, 2018, Utrecht, Jacobikerk

The Netherlands have a long tradition of performing the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. It goes back to the 19th century: in 1899 Willem Mengelberg started the annual performance of this work in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, mostly on Palm Sunday, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Since 1925 his performances were broadcast on public radio. The tradition expanded with the foundation of the Netherlands Bach Society in 1921. This year the number of performances across the country, by professional, semi-professional and amateur choirs and ensembles is said to be 187. And let's not forget that over here the St Matthew Passion is only performed during Lent, (almost) never at any other time in the year.

In comparison the St John Passion is far less frequently performed, although it is more within the reach of especially amateur choirs, as only one choir and a smaller orchestra is needed. Moreover, the choir plays a particularly prominent role in this Passion, more than in its 'big brother'. Ton Koopman, who will conduct the traditional performance in the Concertgebouw this year, performed the St John Passion twice recently, in Rotterdam and Utrecht respectively, with his own ensembles, The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, on period instruments, in contrast to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which uses modern instruments.

The performance took place in the Jacobikerk, which is perfectly suited to larger-scale performances, and whose character fits Bach's Passion far better than a modern concert hall. That said, the acoustic - which is not as large as that of Utrecht Cathedral, for instance - created some problems, especially in the opening chorus. Koopman took a rather swift tempo, which may not have been that much of a problem in a somewhat drier acoustic, but here it went at the cost of a clear articulation and a marked differentiation between good and bad notes. Some of the turbae also suffered from it. The chorales are easier to handle; here I sometimes found the lack of fermates questionable. Several times the individual lines were more or less cut off and were not given the chance to really breathe. That said, the contributions of the choir were excellent. Its members took care of some of the minor roles; Hans Wijers deserves special mention for his good account of the role of Pilate. For some reason Klaus Mertens sang the role of Petre, in addition to that of Jesus. I don't quite understand that; it could have been sung by another bass from the choir. Since many years Mertens is a fixed force in Koopman's performances and recordings, and it is understandable that the latter is happy with Mertens' involvement. He is one of the foremost Bach interpreters of our time, and I have not heard any sign of deterioration in the quality of his performances. So the part of Jesus was performed with exactly the right amount of authority; that is one of the main features of his role in the St John Passion, as the evangelist portrays him as the director of the events. Mertens also took care of the bass arias. 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' was sung beautifully, as was the arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel'. In 'Mein teurer Heiland' I missed a bit of depth in the closing phrase, also due to the tempo, which was a bit too fast.

Koopman likes to work with the same people, and one of them is the German tenor Tilman Lichdi, who has the perfect voice for the part of the Evangelist. He gave a fine interpretation of this part; every word was clearly intelligible. However, I found the tempi often too slow, and he also did not take enough rhythmic freedom. His performance was not as speechlike as it should have been. Partly responsible, obviously, was Koopman, especially in regard to the tempi. Lichdi also sang the tenor arias, which came off very well, especially 'Erwäge', where he avoided the nervous vibrato on the long notes, which so often damage performances of this aria.

Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and Maarten Engeltjes also belong to the artists, with whom Koopman works regularly. This guarantees a large amount of artistic consistency. One does not need to fear a singer in Koopman's performances who has a completely different approach to interpretation. Engeltjes' performances are sometimes marred by an incessant vibrato, but there was nothing of that here. 'Von den Stricken' was sung with the right emotional depth, and the contrast in 'Es ist vollbracht' was exactly right; the viola da gamba part was nicely played by Robert Smith. Yetzabel Arias Fernandez was responsible for the outstanding interpretation of the two soprano arias. In 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' she showed her perfect breath control on the long notes and rhythmic precision in the coloratura.

The chorale 'Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein' was the worthy conclusion of what was overall a fine performance of one of Bach's great masterpieces.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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