St. John Passion

Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday, April 8.

Attending a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion was the perfect way for me to celebrate Easter. It’s a gorgeous, moving work—heartstoppingly grand and yet, during the arias and chorales, heartbreakingly intimate. A masterpiece of one of my favorite composers, it’s the sort of devoutly felt music that makes me feel the presence of God.

But the Passion is also “problematic,” to use that wonderfully weaselly word. A setting of John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion inevitably includes that Gospel’s identification of the “the Jews” as the villains: Pilate insists the prisoner is blameless, but John’s Jews howl for blood.

In other words, the St. John Passion encapsulates what I treasure about religion and what troubles me deeply. It is a testament to the Good that divinely inspired people can accomplish, maybe even a glimpse of the profound Beauty of the divine itself, and yet it is also an example of the damage religion can do. Although the work is, arguably, not itself anti-Semitic, it reflects a tradition of hate and cruelty and ignorance that is as much a product of organized religion as the Goodness and Beauty to which I cling.

The St. John Passion, composed while Bach served as director of music at churches in Leipzig, sets text from Martin Luther’s translation of the fourth Gospel into German. A tenor soloist, known as the Evangelist, sings the narration, and two more soloists sing the words of Jesus and Pilate. Other soloists and a choir interrupt the Biblical text periodically to comment and reflect upon the story of Christ’s suffering.

To me, it is those interruptions that give the work its power. They make universal both the responsibility of Jesus’ suffering and the possibility of redemption it provides—but in an intensely individual context. John’s text might cast all blame on the Jews, but the choir has a different idea, singing to Jesus:

I, I and my sins,
which are as [countless as] the grains
of sand on the seashore,
they have caused you
the sorrow that strikes you
and the grievous host of pain.

Such use of the first-person pervades each aria and chorale, but not in an egocentric way—my feelings, my experiences, my desires—like so much contemporary praise music. Rather, it invites listeners to thoughtfully consider what the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection really means to them. The poetry of the first-person voice takes the abstract and the distant and makes them concrete and deeply present.

Performed in its entirety, the St. John Passion lasts nearly two hours without intermission, so talented musicians are essential, and the Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra, led by conductor Philippe Herreweghe, did not disappoint. Beautiful tone, blend, and diction made even the simplest chorales luminous, and the orchestra, which featured period instruments such as the lute and viola d’amore, shone as well.

The standout, however, was Christoph Prégardien, who sang the part of the Evangelist. With nothing but recitatives—no tuneful, easily accessible arias—Prégardien dazzled seemingly everyone in the concert hall with his exquisite musicianship. The Evangelist’s line has an almost improvisatory quality—unmetered notes moving in unexpected directions—and Prégardien helped us make sense of it musically. Enraptured by his golden tone, carried along by his well-considered use of rubato, and moved by his keen expressivity—so clear and ardent that I sometimes felt as though I understood German—we in the audience hung on his every note. When he held a rest, the entire hall seemed to hold its breath.

And then came the final chorus. The Evangelist’s narration ends with Jesus’ burial, but the choir looks forward to Easter. It eschews clanging cymbals and other triumphalism, though. Lovely and delicate—with each voice taking the enchanting, climbing melody in turn—the chorus sings quietly of peace:

Be fully at peace, you holy bones,
which I will no longer bewail;
be fully at peace and bring also me to this peace!

The grave—which is appointed to you
and from now on no distress will enclose—
opens to me the [gates of] heaven and
closes the [gates of] hell.

It’s music and sentiment like that makes me believe—or at least want to believe, with all my conflicted heart—that on balance, at least, religion has done something truly Beautiful, truly Good.