Bach's St John Passion BBC Proms

Bach's St John Passion

John Butt directs his Dunedin Consort in a complete performance of Bach's powerful St John Passion, with Nicolas Mulroy as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Jesus.

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Time travel is our objective tonight, so buckle up


because we are going back almost 300 years.


It's all to get closer to the world of Johann Sebastian Bach


and his radical, revolutionary and ravishing St John Passion.


Tonight, The Royal Albert Hall will feel like a different


Rather than the concert hall we all know and love,


John Butt and his Dunedin Consort are going to transport us


into an 18th-century German church so we can experience the mighty


power of Bach's St John Passion as its first listeners did.


There will even be some sing-a-long moments.


I am Richard Coles and I can't wait for this total immersion.


We are about to be enveloped in Bach's retelling of the final


days of Christ's life and His crucifixion.


The St John Passion is not an opera, but it is a highly theatrical,


and heart-wrenching encounter with the characters of the Gospel


I'm Hannah French and tonight the Dunedin Consort are recreating


elements of the Good Friday Service for which the St John Passion


was originally written, the audience here will sing chorales


around the Passion as the congregation would have done


in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig in 1724.


Tonight's ensemble are all playing original 18th-century instruments


or replicas so these were the instruments,


and the sounds, this music would have originally been heard on.


But Bach would have heard the SJP performed by school boys


and university students in Leipzig, HE could only dream of a performance


in the hands of the Dunedin Consort, luckily for US these musicians


specialise in the business of sonic time travel.


But one thing that the performers here tonight cannot replicate


is that when the St John Passion was first performed,


nobody in the town of Leipzig would have heard any


During Lent, the churches all fell silent and then on Good Friday that


silence would have been shattered with the music we are about to hear.


The congregation would not have heard anything


It was a truly revolutionary piece of music with its operatic arias,


its visceral focus on Christ's suffering, sparkling polyphony


Many of you may know the more famous older brother,


The St Matthew Passion, for me the St John Passion is a much


Before the first part of the Passion, we are going to hear


the Organ Prelude and Chorale, the audience here in


the Royal Albert Hall, the congregation, will join in.


These two pieces will present The Passion in the way it would have


been introduced in church in Bach's time, evoking how its very


The Passion's opening chorus sets the scene,


as the choir asks to be shown that Christ is the true Son of God before


we plunge straight into the action as Jesus is arrested in the Garden


of Gethsemane The Role of Jesus is sung this evening


by Matthew Brook and the Evangelist by Nicholas Mulroy.


That was the Chorale Lamm Gottes bringing the whole


of The Royal Albert Hall together in song in response to Bach's


portrayal of the disciple Peter's denial and disowning of Christ


at the end of the first part of the St John Passion.


What a stirring performance by the Dunedin Consort


Tonight's soloists are Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist


and Matthew Brook as Jesus, with Sofi Bevan, Tim Mead,


A shattering moment, isn't it, to leave this narrative. We have had


Peter's denial of Jesus and his dejection at the end of that, and


all of a sudden we break for ice cream! It is a weird, jarring


moment. It is. You have hit exactly on the mark of Hart's genius, the


Masters the mix of old and new. Setting the Passion to music was a


centuries-old tradition. Having a chorus and a tenor narrating. What


Bach does is he injects this drama across the score, particularly in


these arias and duets. More emotion, real characters with everyday


feeling. People can actually respond to it. He wants to stir us in our


deepest parts. You have the whole audience congregation joining


together. You have the whole community coming together and


sharing this intensely personal moment. It is. It is very much the


spirit of the 18th century, the way in which artists didn't just perform


for passive entertainment but they reached out and people in their


audiences. Audiences therefore had very physical experiences of their


music so will they pulled their audiences in. You shared the pain


and the enthusiasm and you are very much part of it.


We caught up with John Butt earlier to find out what made him want to


stage the St John Passion in this way.


Bach most of his choral works when he was actually working at a school.


He was essentially reliant on school pupils for vocalists. Boys between


the age of eight and 23. He also had the talent pipers, town musicians.


These were generally very skilled players. Bach himself came from that


environment. Then of course students at the University filled in the


gaps, particularly in the orchestra. It was quite a motley crew. The


trick today of course is to try and get back something of the roughness


of the schoolchildren. Obviously if it is to refine, you lose the


rhetoric of the peace. -- if it is to refine. A lot of modern


techniques of singing and playing, they tend to go over the cracks as


it were. My job is to partly try and encourage people to relive that


rhetorical aspect of the original performance, but actually probably


at a much higher up local level than Bach ever imagined. -- higher local


level. My main interest is to see how people react to the pacing,


spacing and flow of Bach's music within this larger whole. How does


it actually strike the individual listener when you hear it in a


context like this? When one thinks of Bach's Leipzig, his congregations


were often a couple of thousand obviously stuffed into a smaller


space. So the volume of people is not that different in terms of scale


from what Bach might have had. The other thing I'm very interested in


finding out through this performance is how, when the audience who are


invited to sing Chorales at the beginning, middle and end, whether


that changes their receptivity. How they actually feel listening, having


felt that on bodies resonating to their own voices. As Forest St John


Passion is concerned, the thing that is really striking about it is its


relentlessness. Once you step into it, you can't get off it. It is a


bit like getting on a roller-coaster and just as the door closes you


think, did I really want to do that? Its expressive range is absolutely


enormous, it is one of the most frighteningly expressive. It is a


frightening piece, in many ways. It has many moments of beauty, too. The


impact of the piece is absolutely devastating. What we've got ahead


now is actually most of the Passion narrative. We go through the trial,


the crucifixion, having been taken along the roller-coaster, suddenly


the piece slows us down and takes us almost lower than our everyday life.


It makes us faster than slower. In some ways, all of the drama is yet


to come. John Butt, musical director


of Edinburgh's Dunedin Consort. Now if we were in church


in Bach's Leipzig, following the chorales,


organ preludes and the first part of The Passion,


we would now be hearing the Good Friday sermon,


which would last about an hour. Richard, after that


highly wrought drama, what would there have been


left to say?! Well, it is a very brave cleric who


would stand up and interrupted the St John Passion to preach a sermon.


But the death of Jesus on the cross is absolutely central to the version


of theology that Bach as a Lutheran would be familiar with. Indeed in


churches now on Good Friday, it is very much the custom to dwell, and


particularly focus in, on that thing. My own view more and more is


that actually the liturgy does the job for you. I don't think I could


have been more moved by anything in preacher said that I have been


tonight by Bach. The story that you have heard 1000 times, yet it still


moves you, affects you and changes you.


In 1724, the people of Leipzig would have been eagerly


anticipating what their new, 39-year-old resident composer had


come up with for the occasion for his first Good Friday


In fact, the operatic qualities in St John Passion may have raised more


than a few eyebrows, especially among Bach's employers. His contract


required him to arrange music that is not too long, not to operatic in


style, but still installs a fear of God in the listener. He still


overstepped the mark there! Bach masters the large forces of organ,


orchestral musicians and choir and vocalists. But Bach could apply his


colour palette as brilliantly Tisolo works as the these showcase pieces.


To see what his genius could do with just a solo violin, let's take a


look at Alina Ibragimova playing at the Proms in 2015.


Stunning, Alina Ibragimova at the Proms two years ago playing


Partita No Two in D minor for solo violin.


Isn't it incredible how Bach's writing for a single instrument,


and a great performance, can captivate 6000 people


Just ahead of Part two of The St Johns Passion a chance


to look ahead to more Bach coming up this season.


On 7th September the great Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff will take


on a monumental work from Bach's solo repertoire, Book one


To whet your appetite here he is at the Proms in 2015


playing another of Bach's great masterpieces for solo piano-


Andras Schiff, who's back at the Proms on the 7th of September.


You'll be able to see it here on BBC Four.


Back to the second part of tonight's performance now.


We get underway with one of Bach's short organ preludes and then


we are back into the world of the St John Passion.


Part two dives headlong back into the action.


Jesus, abandoned by his friends, the disciples, is led


Listen to the sheer force of the chorus when they come in,


cast as the baying mob calling for Jesus' death, it's


music composed to make you shiver with fear.


We then follow Jesus to his crucifixion and death,


and the story of his entombment is relayed by the Evangelist.


In the final chorus and chorale, we glimpse the joy of Christ's


The Dunedin Consort making an impression in their proms debut.


Matthew Brook as Jesus. Soprano, Sofi Bevan.


Raising the roof of The Royal Albert Hall this evening. John Butt back on


stage. The congregational singing,


and in fact all of this evening's concert, beautifully evoking


the feeling of the Good Friday service in Leipzig when Bach


premiered the St John Passion The Proms are back on BBC4 next


Friday, with Jules Buckley and The Metropole Orchestra's


tribute to legendary composer, innovator,


and bass virtuoso Charles Mingus. But for now, from all of us here


at the Royal Albert Hall, goodnight.


In one of a series of Proms performances marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, John Butt directs his Dunedin Consort in a complete performance of Bach's powerful St John Passion, with Nicolas Mulroy as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Jesus. Reflecting the church setting for which it was written, the performance includes congregational singing from the Proms audience.

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