There can have been few in Emmanuel Church on Saturday who did not think of Craig Smith, the church's late director of music, when the St. John Passion came to the words: "Rest well, and bring me also to peace!" Handkerchiefs were out, and one felt longing for a communal embrace that would have been assuaged if we had been allowed to sing, as Bach's churchgoers were, the closing chorale. This is a period practice that should be reinstituted.
The performance of this first and shorter of J.S. Bach's two great Passion settings, the first by Emmanuel Music in a decade, was natural, elegiac, and totally involving. Michael Beattie, Emmanuel's associate conductor who stepped in for Smith (who died in November), beat time loosely and flexibly, inviting the musicians and singers to contribute in their own way. With an experienced and music-loving ensemble, this can have magical results, and so it did. Each movement settled into what seemed just the right tempo, and the solos, sung by choral members, emerged as intense, individual outbursts of music-drama.
One can't mention all of them, but especially memorable were tenor Jason McStoots's Mozartian grace in "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter," soprano Kristen Watson's springwater "Ich folge dir gleichfalls," tenor Frank Kelley's two anxious-manic-heroic arias, bass Sumner Thompson's angry cries as Pilate, Mark McSweeney's verbally nuanced "Betrachte, meine Seel," and evangelist Charles Blandy's single, long, woeful cry expressing Simon Peter's weeping, sharp as a wrist-slash. What a miraculous emotional gamut is run in this masterpiece. Joy dances alongside the most searing sorrow - sometimes inside it, as in the alto solo "Von den Stricken."
The 16-voice chorus, consistently engaged, made a slightly raw sound in the hurried crowd numbers (which is just right) and blended into beautiful four-part harmony for the two madrigal choruses and the chorales. Three tenors did not seem quite enough - the balance lacked high male brightness. And perhaps more could have been made of the key words "Verspeit" ("Spat upon") and "Kreuzige!" ("Crucify!") in Part Two.
Much depends on the foreground figures. The Evangelist was sung with power and soft touches by Blandy. Paul Guttry's Christ was well sung, but hieratic and monochrome. A few hints of humanity would have made him and his fate even more moving.