On Friday, October 27th, the Harvard Early Music Society presented the North American premiere of Telemann’s Johannespassion (St. John Passion) at First Church in Cambridge. This was part of a two-concert weekend that also featured the work at First Baptist Church in Medford.
The Johannespassion was the only one of Telemann’s 52 passions published in the composer’s lifetime. This master work was well received in Hamburg when it premiered in 1745. Its over two hours of music was written so that the common German people, who spoke little Italian, could understand it. Telemann insisted it be published with only German performance indications. All of its sung lyrics are in German as well, which likely contributed to its success in Hamburg.
First Church’s large space provided an ideal acoustic balance for the eight-person chorus, seven principal singers, and 19-instrument orchestra. Telemann’s music began sonorously, injecting masterfully crafted moments of tension when Jesus prays to his Father before being taken away to die. Christ sings an accompanied recitative and a full aria, something rarely done in the composer’s time. James Lesu’i's resonant baritone created a sympathetic portrayal. Throughout the evening, conductor Elias Miller did a fine job of balancing the various components of his ensemble, bringing out passionate violins and soaring flutes, which often mirrored soloists’ melismatic runs.
Stand-out moments of dramatic theatricality that were particularly effective included one in the first half when the lightning fast fugal choir blended seamlessly into unison only to stop altogether. Just as swiftly as the choral voices bathed us in their waves, they left behind a sudden echo which reverberated off the towering church walls. In the second half, a frenzied mob chanted “Crucify!” through wild, feral runs that sounded almost contemporary in their haphazard ferocity. Telemann’s St. John passion offered much more material for female soloists than J.S. Bach’s: Alto soloist Maddie Studt’s beautiful, rich voice filled the hall with a rarely heard dulcet quality, while MaryRuth Lown’s clear soprano and tasteful dramatic interpretation contributed grace.
Telemann’s passion ended with a more subtle and understated cadence than Bach’s. Yet, the audience was moved to two standing ovations, making this a very successful North American premiere, especially given the 272-year wait.
This review can also be found at the Boston Musical Intelligencer here.