Bach's St John Passion is one of the great monuments of western civilisation, though to treat it as such is a mistake that too many performers have made. In stripping back his forces to the bare essentials – 11 singers and baroque group Concerto Caledonia – Mark Padmore's approach was intended to be revealing rather than reverential, something it ultimately achieved not through the shock-tactics of iconoclastic interpretation but through wonderful simplicity and surety of vision.
A performance using this size of forces was unlikely to favour old-fashioned slow and stately; however, more surprising was that it resisted the other extreme. This wasn't Bach whipped up into a frenzy of excitement, but a performance that in the absence of a conductor settled easily into a series of natural-feeling tempi.
And though it lacked the instant gratification of fast-and-furious performances, overall it was a more rewarding result, the slick choreography of one movement into the next without clunking changes of pace or unnecessary pauses, making the dramatic impetus of the crowd scenes and the intentional breaks all the more effective.
The soloists, led by Padmore's thoughtfully expressive Evangelist and Roderick William's noble Christus seemed to have more than customary freedom to make of their arias what they wished. Matthew Brook communicating the urgency of bass aria Eilt, ihr angefochtnen with a pace that took the accompanying chorus a little while to match, while the rich beauty of countertenor Iestyn Davies's voice was used to full effect in Es ist vollbracht.
With Richard Holloway's address reflecting on the nature of John's Gospel given in lieu of the traditional Lutheran sermon, this was a contemplative account of the Passion movingly concluded, as Bach himself would have done, with the sixteenth-century motet Ecce commodo by Jacob Handl, sung by both the choir and orchestra players.