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Music review: Bach's 'St. John Passion' by Musica Angelica*

March 28, 2010 | 12:06 pm

It’s not often that you get to hear live performances of both of J.S. Bach’s surviving Passions in one season, let alone a single month.

Haselbock The Los Angeles Master Chorale offered the St. Matthew Passion about three weeks ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with the period-performance group Musica Angelica providing the instrumental forces.  Over the weekend, Musica Angelica took several cracks at the "St. John Passion" on its own -- first at Cerritos Center on Friday night, then at Pasadena’s First United Methodist Church on Saturday night. A final concert is set for 4 p.m. Sunday at Santa Monica’s First United Methodist Church.

For the "St. John Passion" -- as heard in the Pasadena performance -- Musica Angelica reverted to what was billed as “the spirit of Bach’s original conception” in having the solo singers double as the chorus. This reopens the debate about so-called original intentions, whether we should make do with what Bach had at hand in his time or whether we should take a leap of imagination and aim for what Bach might have really wanted in his heart of hearts had the resources been available to him.  There is no way to know the latter, of course, but the great power of this music itself is the best evidence for bigger, more imposing and, yes, modern forces.

In any case, by doing "St. John" this way, it was supposed to gain intimacy, perhaps like storytelling for a small local congregation – and this approach definitely had its payoffs, particularly in the plaintive homophonic chorales.  Musica Angelica music director Martin Haselböck kept the tempos up and running; the piece clocked in at a decidedly fast but not rushed 104 minutes.

But there were several passages that simply did not come off with the impact that one could imagine, like the two mighty chorales that formed massive bookends to the piece or the vividly descriptive downward scale and tremolos for organ and continuo depicting the shaking of the earth as the graves opened (one looked longingly at the Pasadena church’s pipe organ – which wasn’t used).  Also, it’s possible that the acoustics in this space were a problem. Wherever Bach employed his marvelously intricate instrumental polyphony, the period instruments sounded murky and smudged when you could hear them at all underneath the voices.  That worked against one of the goals of this kind of performance – paring things down so that you could hear what Bach wrote.

It was the voices – all of them of fine quality – that were the main assets of this performance, and their individual lines in the choral sections, at least, could be heard with some clarity.   Lyric tenor Tilman Lichdi was the strong, clearly projecting Evangelist; baritone Michael Dean, a compassionate Jesus; and baritone Scott Graff, a sonorous Pilatus. Catherine Webster unveiled a lovely, trilling, distinctive lyric soprano in her solo in Part 1 while the creamier-voiced Mary Wilson took the other soprano solo in Part 2, and  Ian Howell’s countertenor was agile and sweet in timbre.

-- Richard S. Ginell

Music Angelica, First United Methodist Church, 1008 11th St., Santa Monica, 4 p.m. Sunday, $49-$55, (310) 458-4504.

*Updated: In an earlier version of this review tremolos was misspelled.

Photo: Martin Haselböck in 2008. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times