Jacqueline Shave directs unconducted performances of Bach's St John Passion. In this blog post she describes how she has immersed herself in the work and how she is preparing for the performances.
Having spent a great deal of time over the past year immersed in this great work, I am wondering if it should perhaps be presented with an X certificate rating, so extreme are the range of human emotions and behaviour found within it.
I first experienced the St John Passion as a mature student at the Britten Pears School in Snape, where Nicholas Daniel and I worked intensively on many of the arias with Peter Pears and a group of young singers and instrumentalists from around the world. It made a deep and everlasting impression on me, and it is particularly moving to be here thirty years on, again with Nick, shaping this work together.
It is of course a great privilege and responsibility to be at the helm, making decisions, as performances of Bach can vary enormously. I have spent many hours listening and feeling and I have come to the conclusion that there is no definitive way of performing Bach's music. Bach himself was always experimenting and making changes. He offers us a palette of many colours.
I have decided to use a harpsichord with the voice of the Evangelist throughout, as it seems to bring a human and expressive dimension for the listener, in contrast to the halo of the organ sound surrounding the voice of Christus. Britten does the same in his 1971 recording, but these days it is often performed with organ and no harpsichord. We are also using a lute, which brings an exquisite ancient timbre, and of course the plaintive gamba for "Es ist Vollbracht", one of the most unconventional and original arias that Bach ever wrote.
As soon as the music begins there is the pulsing human heartbeat of the bass line, the painfully beautiful dissonance of oboes and flutes, and the turmoil of the string semi quavers. Bach leaves us in no doubt that this is serious, strong and passionate. There is no gentle ' warm up'. He throws us directly into the emotion. Imagine hearing this at the first performance nearly three hundred years ago! I find it hard to listen to this opening without feeling greatly disturbed, almost angry, at this vision of a vast stirring soup of mankind. It is as if everything is revealed; the tragedy and beauty of the entire Passion.
It is masterful how Bach frames the work with the two great Choruses; the harrowing first, and the moving, loving "Ruht Wohl" at the end. We are also given the communal ‘commenting’ element of the exquisitely beautiful chorales and the vivid depiction of Christ's trial with the chorus almost shouting with hysterical intensity.
Amongst all this Bach gives us the ' freeze frame' emotions of the arias, when all action stops, and we have time to explore and reflect on what is happening. Time seems to stand still in "Betrachte Meine Seel", the intensely moving soul searching Bass aria where one hardly dares breathe for disturbing this precious place that Bach has created for us. In the next aria "Erwage", we have time to ponder on the battered, bruised and blood-stained back of Jesus. It is truly miraculous how, in the midst of the piece, Bach is able to evoke such introspection in the listener by this change of pace.
Ultimately we want to create a powerful shared experience by performing this work unconducted, and to show the directness, the unbridled immediacy, and the raw power contained in Bach's music.
Britten Sinfonia, Leader
Britten Sinfonia perform Bach's St John Passion on Wednesday 16 April at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall, Thursday 17 April at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Friday 18 April at London's Barbican, Saturday 19 April at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall and Sunday 20 April at Norwich's Theatre Royal. For more info click here
You can also hear Jacqueline Shave and Stephen Williams (Principal Double Bass) talk abuot the St John Passion in a previous podcast, SinfoniaCast 21