Review: Bach’s St John Passion from Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican

Academy of Ancient Music with Iestyn Davies, James Gilchrist, Mary Bevan, and Cody Quattlebaum

This was a mesmerising performance, the emotional impact of which lingered after the final note sounded, and long into the warm and enthusiastic applause. There was an immediacy to the drama that made the penultimate chorus hard-earned and well-deserved. The effect was harrowing and poignant. Necessary.

Part One saw performers on stage need to adjust slightly. The chorus was a little strident in the fortissimos, and occasionally lagged behind the orchestra in ensemble, notably in Jesum von Nazareth and the chorale Wer hat dich so geschlagen.

But strength was found in Evangelist James Gilchrist who shone throughout the performance combining shapely contours and a pristine tone, with a touching humble presence.

Making his UK debut was US baritone Cody Quattlebaum with a delectably deep rich voice that belied his age and pinned us to the wall. The melisma of Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen, a stunning performance of Betrachte, meine Seel being one of many highpoints.

Cody Quattlebaum is a gratifyingly hot ticket. It’s rare I get excited by singers. He is on my special list.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies – silky and smooth – appeared to be holding back slightly in Part One. But like the chorus, he returned to the stage for Part Two with a much-appreciated clarity and a slightly less demonstrative presence.

Mary Bevan who stepped in for originally billed Lydia Teuscher a clear blue tone and razor sharp clarity throughout, but delivered a stunning Zerfliesse, mein Herze, with an electrifying crescendo in the final few bars.

If the chorus had experienced mild-difficulties in Part One these were, like the tonal consensus amongst the soloists, ironed out in the second half. At times as though we were hearing a different chorus – a tighter more alert ensemble. Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater was a blisteringly urgent affair. Similarly Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!

The chorus’ best was saved until near the end during the crushing but also hopeful Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine. People cried, I kid you not.

A performance that touches will last beyond the auditorium. Rare things. This was one of them. A deeply moving experience on a special day.

James Gilchrist features on the Academy of Ancient Music's recording of St John Passion directed by Richard Egarr. It's available to stream on Spotify.

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