Thursday, April 11, 2019

J.S.Bach's St. John Passion performed under the baton of Maestro Joshua Rifkin at the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Photo: Yoel Levy
Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion was the centr
al work of the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival, an annual festival with events in Jerusalem and other locations in Israel; it is under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and directed by the JBO’s founder and director Prof. David Shemer. Directed by eminent visiting conductor Joshua Rifkin (USA), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was joined by soloists soprano Keren Motzeri (Israel/Holland), alto Avital Dery (Israel), tenor Richard Resch (Germany) and baritone Drew Santini (Canada/Holland) and by ripieno singers Liron Givoni-soprano, Iphigenie Worbes-alto, Hillel Sherman-tenor and Hagai Berenson-bass. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 25th 2019.

Composed in 1721, the St. John Passion, a work on which Bach clearly placed high value, was one of the few works he revised and revived intermittently till the end of his life. Robert Schumann, who conducted it 1851, considered it “more daring, forceful and poetic” than the St. Matthew Passion. John Eliot Gardiner has called it “the more radical of Bach’s surviving passion settings.” Directly dramatic and focused on telling the story, the structure of the St. John Passion closely follows the drama itself, giving it a more “operatic” feel, especially in the extraordinarily intense trial scene. The drama is played out on multiple levels: arias take us outside the tragic narrative at strategic points to reflect on the action, and chorales, providing moments of stability, bring us forward into the present day to focus on the congregation. The Passion is in two parts. Bach’s anonymous librettist drew on poetry from various writers for the aria texts. The gospel narrative is from St. John; however, in order to heighten the drama, Bach inserts two dramatic episodes from the Gospel of St. Matthew — the crowing of the cock after Peter denies knowing Jesus and the earthquake that follows the crucifixion. In recent decades, many people have been uncomfortable with the St. John Passion due to its depiction of the Jews and this issue has been much addressed. Yet, despite the fact that it may trouble our modern sensibilities, the work speaks to our time, not just to Bach’s, via all its profound and magnificent music.

Joshua Rifkin’s St. John Passion was a process - the narrative, the utterances and emotions of the main characters, the crowd and the minor characters (the latter roles sung my members of the ripieno choir) - but, in this performance, the process seemed to burgeon no less powerfully within the mind and emotions of the listener as the work proceeded. This was triggered by the tension and the feeling of unrest created by very chordal structure of the opening overture/chorus, with the long sequence of deep stresses of “Herr, Herr, Herr” in compelling exchange from voice to voice, this symbolizing the deep-seated conflict of good versus evil about to unfold. We were immediately transported to another world, one teaming with profound and complex emotions

In the mammoth role of the Evangelist and tenor soloist, Richard Resch, no new face to the Israeli Baroque concert scene, his voice resonant, warm and generous, his performance displaying interpretive expressiveness and subtlety, guided the listener through the chronicle with a sense of fervent involvement. This was inherent in his melismatic singing of “weinete” (wept) set against the orchestra’s anguished falling chromatic notes to describe Peter weeping bitterly (item 12) or his spine-chilling aria “My Jesus, ah! Your bitter, painful suffering” (item 20) - tender, empathic, wonderfully shaped in sotto voce colourings, this endorsed by velvety, muted string playing. In the role of Jesus, Canadian-born baritone Drew Santini, making his Israeli debut, gave credence and poetically understated meaning to the narrative, as in item 16, singing the final “Aber nun ist mein Reich nicht von dannen” (My kingdom is not here) where Bach clearly portrays Jesus thinking about his real kingdom, the one in heaven. Hence the major key. Santini’s singing was rich, intense, supple, warm and unstrained. Articulate musically and in diction, soprano Keren Motzeri was convincing and personal in “I follow thee also” (item 9), represented poignantly by Bach in having the voice enter and the flutes (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard) following together at a short interval. Motzeri’s singing was elegant, touching and engaging and graced with gentle rubato in “Dissolve, my heart” (item 35) with flute obbligato (Shemer), her finely-controlled “piano” singing reaching all corners of the hall. In the alto aria “From the bonds of my sins” (item 7), Avital Dery’s eloquent and profound performance (at certain moments masked by the woodwinds) offered new musical and verbal meaning to the repeat of the first section. In "Es ist vollbracht!” (It is accomplished), essentially a viola da gamba solo and alto aria, we were better able to appreciate her wonderful voice and interpretation as she and gambist Myrna Herzog joined to exquisitely convey the intense tragedy of the moment (Christ’s last words and death), the aria’s almost disturbing sudden outburst of joy, momentarily celebrating the “hero from Judah”, ornamented with vocal melismas, then to succumb to the movement’s original grief. Herzog and Dery’s collaboration and emotional interpretation at this crucial moment of the Passion were, indeed, a highlight of the evening’s performance.

In what was almost a one-performer-per-part ensemble, the JBO players achieved a remarkably rich and lush amalgamation of timbres. With the practice of composers harmonizing traditional Lutheran hymn tunes reaching its absolute summit in the hands of Bach, the St. John Passion abounds in a magnificent collection of chorales. The singers addressed them with reflective and spiritual enquiry. The choruses, representing crowd scenes in highly dramatic, emotionally-charged episodes, achieved the desired result. The performance offered a pleasing balance between the instrumental and vocal forces. A moving and memorable event of the 2019 Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

For the duration of the Bach in Jerusalem Festival, festival-goers could visit an interesting and informative exhibition on Bach, the St. John Passion and its times brought to Israel by director of the Bach House (Eisenach, Germany) Dr. Jörg Hansen and colleagues. Also, in conjunction with the festival, an international symposium was held on March 26th at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Moderated by Dr, Uri Golomb, Dr. Alon Schab, Dr. Jörg Hansen and Maestro Joshua Rifkin discussed various aspects and performances of the St. John Passion.

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