When Felix Mendelssohn began performing Bach's (then neglected) music, he was restoring a musical tradition that covered almost every aspect of the musical tradition. His output was prolific: solo suites and partitas for solo instruments, concerto grossi, masses, cantatas (both sacred and secular) and oratorios—two of which fall into the category of passion oratorio.
Of the five passion oratorios penned by Bach, only two survive in complete form: the St. John's Passion and St. Matthew's Passion; the libretto for a work based on the gospel of Luke exists though is incomplete and the other two oratorios are mentioned only in church documents. The works are meant to be performed in successive years, as the church calendar rotates through the four gospels. Even so, the St. Matthew's Passion is the more popular and widely performed of the two in modern tradition.
The work is composed for two orchestras (each with their own continuo), two choirs, and six named soloists taking on the roles of several different characters from the story. Split into two sections, the first half deals with Jesus' entry into the city, the last supper, and the trek to the garden of Gethsemane. The second part begins with the trial of Jesus, his conviction and condemnation, and ends with the execution and burial (as the work was meant to be performed on Good Friday, the resurrection is not included in the work and is not traditionally considered part of the passion story).
The Dallas Symphony presents the work in their most recent concert cycle, joined by the Dallas Symphony Chorus and the Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas as well as soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, tenors Johannes Chum and John McVeigh, and basses Morgan Smith and Alastair Miles.
The brunt of the work falls on tenor Johannes Chum, singing the role of the evangelist. Part commentator, part narrator, Chum handles the role with ease, taking his performance beyond the simple recitation and gives the part a more declamatory style that adds to the drama of work. Morgan Smith follows in the role of Jesus (and is the only soloist, other than Chum, to not cover multiple characters). He possesses a dark, smooth tone that is both easy to understand and feeds into the persona of his role completely. John McVeigh and Alastair Miles also equate themselves well, taking on several different roles including Judas, Peter, Simon, Pilate and Caiaphas. The two women soloists cover several roles as well as unnamed characters who add commentary through several arias interspersed throughout the work.
The choirs are expertly prepared by Joshua Habermann (Dallas Symphony Chorus) and Cynthia Nott (Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas). While only being used in two choruses in the first half, the children's chorus is wonderful to experience; they possess a clear tone that cuts through the other performers to soar over the ensemble. The adult chorus represents themselves nobly as well, nestling into the overall sound of the ensemble without being overpowering.
The orchestra, led by conductor Jaap van Zweden, is split into two groups, mirrored down the centerline of the stage. One of the major talking points of the concert is the adherence to a "historically informed performance," which in this case means not using vibrato as well as more abrupt shifts in dynamics and ornamentation. The ensemble is successful for the most part, although towards the end of the work, more and more vibrato begins to appear.
Van Zweden is his usual animated self, which leads to varying levels—some stronger, some weaker. It is a bit distracting during the smaller sections. For example, in the second half, during an aria performed by Johnston, which is accompanied by a solo violin and continuo, van Zweden draws attention away with his gesticulations and swaying. However, this is not usually the case, and the emphasis is placed on the soloists and choir.
The concert is a marathon. The program lists the length at two hours and 20 minutes, but on Thursday night it was over three hours, including the intermission. In a way, this provides a further testament to the performers and highlights their ability to keep coherent musical thought going over such along period of time. In the end, the time is well spent. It is not often that any ensemble performs this work, not only in its entirety, but with the high level of skill displayed here.