St John Passion: Charles Daniels evangelizing

Everything about the presentation of Bach’s St John Passion by Tafelmusik Baroque Choir & orchestra at Trinity St Paul’s Centre seemed fitting.

You are in a church. The space has been somewhat converted for the use of the offspring of this congregation such as the Toronto Consort (whose artistic director David Fallis is or was a member of the congregation) and Tafelmusik (whose bass player & concert conceptualizer Alison MacKay –Fallis’ partner– also has connections to the church), yet is still very much a church. The colossal pipes confront you as you enter, the hymn numbers still posted. Even when the place is full as it was tonight, it’s never secular.

The approach is meant to take us back to 1749, using a version from late in Bach’s life. In Bach’s time the soloists would also sing the choruses: and so they (soprano Julia Doyle, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Charles Daniels and baritone Peter Harvey) did just that, placed upstage of the tiny orchestra (sixteen players), but just in front of the small chorus (twenty-two voices). Ivars Taurins conducted the choruses with his usual exuberant plastic eloquence, but allowed arias to proceed more or less via the dramatic exchange of glances rather than his intervention.

For something taking two and a half hours, with a brief intermission, it flew by, taut and urgent from beginning to end. For anyone who thinks they know this piece, I urge you to attend if at all possible (continuing until Sunday March 22), as this is not the work I thought I knew. I coached a tenor long ago –indeed he was a COC ensemble member—in the role of the Evangelist, who has a very large part. It’s brand new to me in this account, particularly because of the elegance of Charles Daniels’ subtle reading of that crucial role.

Tenor Charles Daniels (click for the Charles Daniels Society.  I share their enthusiasm!)

Two of his arias are especially challenging. “Ach, mein Sinn” requires a phenomenal command of the words, a delicacy of delivery, flexibility, a willingness to trip lightly over some notes while agonizingly declaiming others. Daniels sang it very lightly, very easily, a work of great drama precisely because he wasn’t over-working the voice or over-dramatizing. I was very much in awe. The second aria was more of the same even if it’s not quite as daunting, namely “Mein Jesu, ach!”, another subtle combination of emotions in one brief little package. Daniels’ performance alone is reason to go see this wonderful work. Don’t mistake me, while the other soloists were also good, their parts combined are roughly as long as the part of the Evangelist. AND Daniels also sang the choruses. Peter Harvey was a warm sounding baritone, particularly as Jesus, while Julia Doyle’s soprano and Daniel Taylor, countertenor, each had wonderful solos.

Tafelmusik chorus & orchestra are among the greatest treasures of this city, especially on the nights when Taurins is conducting: a musician of great commitment & integrity. This is a performance that does not dishonour the church nor the Christian origins of the story by being overly operatic or performative, entirely suitable for your Lenten meditations.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins (left foreground). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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