A toast to James Gilchrist

The Bach Collegium Japan live-streamed a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion today on philharmonie.tv, Kölner Philharmonie’s “digital concert hall.” I was delighted that James Gilchrist was singing the role of the Evangelist. Gilchrist is one of my favorite Evangelists—not for the sound of his voice as such, but because he is one of the few, it seems to me, who fully understands the delicacy of the role. The Evangelist is everpresent, and yet never quite in the center of attention (like the continuo). He’s also always making endearingly expressive faces along with others’ arias.

I first heard Gilchrist live in Boston’s Symphony Hall around 2007 in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. (I think it was with the Handel & Haydn Society, but it might have been a touring group.) This was the performance that significantly formed my favorable opinion of his art: specifically, his rendering of the lines “Petrus ging heraus und weinete bitterlich.” and “Das ist verdeutschet: Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?” Those are the litmus tests in Matthew, if you ask me. Nothing more tedious than an Evangelist who thinks he’s the main character at such crucial (ahem) moments; and boy are there plenty of those kinds of Evangelists.