Whenever you're in the presence of the vocal ensemble Polyphony and
their conductor Stephen Layton you begin to understand what
authenticity is really about. And it has little to do with period
performance. Their St John Passion certainly was historically informed
- and they sang with the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient
Music. But the authenticity here went deeper, to the core of Bach's
responses to the Easter story, and to the beating heart of his musical
From the first cries of Herr, unser Herrscher!, the Almighty was
summoned with impassioned urgency to show how triumph will rise even
out of betrayal and humiliation. Layton knows just how to point and
reinforce the inner voices of his choir - the strong tenors and altos
- to close-focus the anguish and the joy. And every single chorale -
those temporary resting places of communal and heartfelt response to
the drama - distilled its emotions of grief and wonder with huge
The polyphony of Polyphony itself, and the gripping articulation of
this choir, is so compelling that the soloists never appear in
overelevated relief - even when they include Ian Bostridge and Carolyn
Sampson. Bostridge is an intense yet humbly contemplative Evangelist.
His pacing of each recitative is now honed to perfection, and the
balance of objective and subjective tale-telling revelatory. As this
Passion was part of his own Homeward Bound festival, it was natural
that he should sing the tenor arias, too - though on occasion this
seemed to overtax his vocal energies.
Sampson's soprano arias were delectable, and delectably accompanied.
The supple and always sensitive baritone of Roderick Williams was at
the centre of the action as Pilate. His own drama-within-a-drama could
have been a little more powerfully projected; the Christus of the bass
James Rutherford just a little less so. Michael Chance, as the
counter-tenor soloist, was exquisitely accompanied by Reiko Ichise's
viol da gamba, just before the full minute's silence respected so
eloquently by Stephen Layton at the point of Christ's death.