MONTREAL — For all its emphasis on the great J.S., the Festival Bach Montréal encourages a wide range of formats and styles. The 2021 edition of the annual late-fall celebration offered straight-up performances of the Christmas Oratorio, The Art of Fugue, and the Brandenburg Concertos, as well as a distinctly nonstandard version of the St. John Passion for tenor, keyboardist, percussionist, and a handful of chorale-singing souls in the crowd. It was necessary at the end of the presentation on Nov. 26 to balance admiration for what was done well with a certain degree of wonder as to why it was done at all.
To set the scene: A harpsichord, a positive organ, and an array of mallet and percussion instruments are parked in the chancel of the Neo-gothic, 1909 Saint-Édouard Church. Elina Albach (harpsichord) and Philipp Lamprecht (vibraphone) get things going with an approximation of the instrumental introduction to the opening chorus. Where we expect the voices to enter with pleas of “Herr, herr,” we hear the Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson, very much on his own.
And so it went, amazingly enough, for 85 minutes, as Kristjánsson undertook the Herculean labor of singing or otherwise intoning the recitatives of the Evangelist, the exchanges of the Passion characters, including the central dialogue of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and the shouts of the crowd. Some arias were cut — “Ach, mein Sinn” was one of the casualties — but the chorales were not, and our all-purpose vocalist took the lead here as well, singing the top line while conducting the congregational volunteers (who, masked and scattered, were barely audible).
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As if these duties were not enough, Kristjánsson added devotional acting to the performance package, holding his hands up in supplication, dropping his head solemnly, or pointing an accusatory finger while mouthing words at the crowd. And all from memory. Tour de force is putting it mildly.
It stands to reason that an artist tasked with so much singing should be endowed with a voice that bears listening to. High and clarion, Kristjánsson’s tenor suited the music of the Evangelist perfectly, and he was able to invest his fainter lower register with raspy character. The menacing interventions of “the Jews” (as they are called in John’s Gospel) often came out in a Schoenbergian Sprechstimme. “Es ist vollbracht,” the uncuttable contralto aria that serves as a reflection on Christ’s exit from human life, became a less-is-more exercise in sotto voce singing at a slow tempo. Whether or not it worked as well as the original, it worked well enough. The same might be said of the penultimate chorus, “Ruhet wohl,” given by Kristjánsson as a touching a cappella anthem. Albach and Lamprecht, called on to reinforce the nearly nonexistent congregational singing, joined in for the final chorale. Perhaps it counts as unintended Trinitarian symbolism to have a trio bring the performance to an end.
Much of this was remarkable. Yet however much we might credit Kristjánsson and his colleagues for what they salvaged, we must recognize also that much was lost. The absence of a viable chorus was difficult to accept. For the frightening shouts of “Kreuzige,” we heard only a banging drum and pulsing harpsichord. Other noisemakers materialized from time to time, threatening to turn a solemn religious experience into a toy symphony. And while the mimetic properties of mallets are considerable, they can be summoned too often.
All the same, the combined strangeness and sincerity of this enterprise (formally titled Johannespassion für Tenor allein, Cembalo, Orgel und Schlagwerk and attributed to all three performers) kept interest alive. Despite, it should be said, some obstacles to concentration. Parish churches in Quebec were not always built with interior warmth or sightlines in mind. Lighting was harsh, and the lone visual guide for the spectator was a small-print sheet itemizing titles in German only. I took the precaution of bringing a CD booklet, but most of those in attendance had no aid to comprehension. Mask-wearing was mandatory, with all the discomfort that this implies.
Hundreds of thousands are said to have seen and heard a performance of this reduction live from an nearly empty Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Good Friday 2020, when COVID-19 was hitting its stride. Perhaps at home is the best way of appreciating its mix of virtues and compromises. The video is available on YouTube.