The days when going to concerts at Easter was a predictable experience are long gone. The pool of early and Baroque religious music available to performers is far wider now and even Bach’s two best-known Easter Passions can yield some surprises.
On Good Friday, the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican offered a performance of Bach’s St john passion, but not as we usually hear it. Bach revised the score a number of times between the work’s premiere in 1724 and 1749, and the version chosen dated from 1725.
Although it is easy to find recordings of the 1725 version, it does not come round live often. There is an immediate surprise when the opening chorus is missing, but more important are three new arias, which are unlikely to be heard in any other context. One for bass is unusually inventive, including a hymnlike part for solo soprano and a pair of intertwined flutes, while the others, both for the tenor, are hardly less striking. The two that come in the first part have a tormented feel allied to virtuoso writing for the singers, which sets the 1725 St john passion off on a different emotional trajectory.
All this came across convincingly in a fluent, expressive performance by the Academy of Ancient Music and its new director, Laurence Cummings. Hugo Hymas was the light-voiced tenor dealing very surely with his two demanding arias and Jessica Dandy made a profound impression in the grave “Es ist vollbracht” (what a change to hear a mezzo rather than the counter-tenor that has become more common ). Each of the nine soloists formed part of the expert 12-voice choir, including Nicholas Mulroy’s lyrically-sung Evangelist and the outstanding Jesus of Dingle Yandell.
At St John’s Smith Square, the annual Easter Festival is an anchor of this year’s program. The week-long roll-call of choirs culminated in a visit from Belgian group Vox Luminis, directed by Lionel Meunier, doubling as singer (a firm bass) and recorder player (when required).
The line-up was identical to the Barbican concert a couple of days earlier: 12 singers, all soloists in their own right who joined to form the choir, and a small band of instruments. The choir’s ensemble sounded impeccable, even though they had lost a couple of members to Covid in the 24 hours before.
The program of Schütz and Bach featured three works. Schütz’s Musical Exequiendating from around 1635 and commissioned as a requiem in the German language, is a fixture in Vox Luminis’s repertoire and their recording 10 years ago was a Gramophone award-winner for its restrained eloquence.
Different groupings of singers there and the solos in both the Bach works – the Actus Tragicus and Christ lag in Todesbanden, composed for Easter Sunday and being performed here on its intended day – showed the group’s versatility. This pair of concerts shared high-quality singing by small professional choirs and that is something else that was uncommon a generation or two ago.