Bach's "St. John Passion" is neither an opera nor an oratorio, but something in between. In a mix of arias, choruses and recitatives, it tells the story of Christ's condemnation and crucifixion, in some of the most deeply expressive music in the classical tradition.
Saturday evening's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of the Passion was one of the most satisfying you could hope to hear.
Led by English baroque specialist Jonathan Cohen, it featured an outstanding team of six soloists, Twin Cities choir the Singers, and an ensemble of 20 SPCO players. The soloists were headed by the English tenor Nicholas Mulroy in the huge part of the Evangelist who relates the Passion story.
Mulroy was an outstandingly sensitive narrator. He sang without a score, greatly enhancing his eye contact with both the audience and the other characters and adding a riveting immediacy to the storytelling.
Mulroy had excellent support from those around him. As Jesus, bass Matthew Brook brought gravitas and dignity, with sonorous tone and immaculately clear diction.
Brook's confrontation with the Pontius Pilate of baritone William Berger compelled attention, the two glaring at each other from opposite ends of the Ordway platform in mutual suspicion.
Berger's Pilate was a commanding, implacable presence, and he sang the bass arias with resonant authority. Soprano Joélle Harvey and tenor Nick Pritchard were equally authoritative, performing with heartfelt intelligence and commitment.
Among the many solo highlights, countertenor Tim Mead's "Es ist vollbracht" stood out. Mead sang with a melting fluidity of tone and deep empathy, while Beiliang Zhu contributed a ravishing commentary on viola da gamba.
Concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini and fellow violinist Kyu-Young Kim duetted balletically in the tenor aria "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken", while principal flute Julia Bogorad-Kogan provided mellifluous decorations in the soprano's "Ich folge dir gleichfalls."
The crucial role of accompanying the Evangelist was immaculately done by organist Paolo Bordignon (harpsichordist of the New York Philharmonic) and SPCO principal cello Julie Albers, playing with a baroque bow for the evening.
The Singers had been scrupulously prepared by Matthew Culloton and Matthew Olson and flipped impressively from the contemplative chorales to the venom needed when the baying crowd demanded the crucifixion of Jesus. Three of them — Jessie Braaten, Philip Rossin and Timothy Bruett — also made brief, accomplished solo appearances.
At the heart of the evening was conductor Cohen, standing to direct the choir or sitting at his harpsichord to accompany the soloists.
Since his appointment as an artistic partner at the SPCO two years ago, Cohen has quietly reinvented the way the orchestra approaches baroque music.
This "St. John Passion" was undoubtedly his most significant achievement yet. Beautifully paced and integrated, it was a deeply moving realization of Bach's masterpiece of suffering and redemption.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.