Johann Sebastian Bach probably didn’t foresee his “Passions” as spectacles. In fact, he had to fight Leipzig’s city council to get the performing space for premiering his “St. John Passion.” On Sunday, the Washington National Cathedral Combined Choirs and Baroque Orchestra, joined by vocal soloists, assembled their expansive forces for a compelling account of this masterpiece. It was a spectacle of sorts, but it worked, and for good reason. Conducted by Canon Michael McCarthy, Sunday’s stunning performance relayed St. John’s riveting account of Christ’s Passion — his betrayal, crucifixion, suffering, death and entombment — with the high drama of John’s depiction. (Bach’s later “St. Matthew Passion” is more lyrically reflective.)
Bach’s “Passions” have far eclipsed other musical works on this biblical event. And Sunday’s performance made it clear why. McCarthy fully captured the mob’s lust for crucifixion, sharply contrasting it with Christ’s compassion and utter grief, which were powerfully voiced by the chorus, orchestra and soloists. McCarthy never let his musicians lose a whit of Bach’s signature rhythmic pulse driving the music from start to finish. The opening chorus raged and stormed with a conviction that was as impelling as the finale — really a lullaby — was consoling. And, as the drama increased in intensity, not a shade of the crowd’s vengeful anger at the trial scene was compromised. McCarthy captured the story’s terrifying realism and immediacy, and the voices and instruments were finely balanced, the chorus incisive in its German diction — spiked by the children’s tonal precision.
Playing a variety of baroque instruments, the musicians lent specific timbres to define widely ranging expressions of grief and despair. Rufus Mueller was a stunning, heart-wrenching Evangelist in both his narrative and contemplative roles; Brendan Curran’s nuanced baritone revealed Christ’s moments of exultation — as John pictured it — in the face of inexorable death. Elizabeth Cragg’s soprano was fresh and radiant; countertenor Roger O. Isaacs lent eloquence to the story; bass Christopheren Nomura and tenor Nicholas Phan were powerfully expressive.
Porter is a freelance writer.