St John Passion - Bach
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
The audience gathered at St Andrew’s Church, Penrith, on Saturday 27th May, for a performance of J S Bach’s St John Passion, given by the Penrith Singers under their musical director, Edward Taylor. With an orchestra made up of local musicians, leader Susan Johnson, the choir began in fine style with a forceful: ‘Hail, Lord and Master - - thou - - came to save mankind from - - sin and shame.’ This, the basis of the Passion story which would unfold, as told by St John.
Coming to the concert, now some 6 weeks after Easter, maybe there was a sense that our mood has changed, that this story of the suffering Christ which preceded the Easter celebration wasn’t relevant now. But how wrong one can be! For look towards Manchester, and yes, this story is always relevant! So the choir sang this opening chorus to set the scene, confident in Bach’s rhythm and counterpoint.
The story is told by the Evangelist in recitative. Clearly, the choir had remembered Stephen Anthony Brown as the Evangelist at its previous performance of the work in 2004 and engaged him again for the part. They would not be disappointed. He expressed the narrative with thought and care throughout, with his tenor voice bringing a clarity of diction, so necessary if the listener is to be fully engaged in the drama.
As the story unfolds there is a need for small parts to be taken by members of the choir. Helen Thornley, Andrew Barbier and Charles Ritchie ably fulfilled these roles. The part of Jesus was considerable and well and confidently sung by Bill Maddams from the bass section.
Bach gives the soprano soloist two wonderful areas in which to excel, as indeed, Emma Peaurt did, as always, having been invited to perform with Penrith Singers several times in the past. It was also good to see the return of Joseph Bolger, counter-tenor. He, too, was given two arias by the composer. But key to these arias are the obbligato instruments adding interest and colour to the music. With the counter-tenor 2 oboes and bassoon and with the soprano 2 flutes and bassoon. And all underpinned, as throughout the piece, by low strings with leader, Sally Robbins (‘cello) and John Cooper Green on chamber organ.
There was also a welcome return for bass soloist, Paul Im Thurn. His arias are somewhat different. Singing of the ‘sharp thorns’ on the head of Jesus he was accompanied on solo violin with pizzicato on lower strings, a strange sound. A combination of strings also accompanied him in the rapidly flowing, ‘ Haste - - to Golgotha’ with the choir’s precise, ‘O where? O where’ constantly interrupting. And again, as he sang to his ‘Lord and Master’, the choir were quietly singing the chorale, ‘Jesu, thou who tasted death, live forever’. Indeed, chorales sung by the choir feature throughout. They were reduced in numbers to some 50 singers, partly through sickness but also on account of the timing, it being a bank holiday weekend. Nevertheless they excelled in the four part harmony of the chorales, the men’s voices, just 8 tenors and 9 basses coming through nicely. The chorales apart, the choir’s role needed to be confrontational, and it was! Often in short contrapuntal passages, as when Jesus asks, ‘Whom seek ye?’, and the response with venom in their voices, ‘Jesus of Nazareth!’ And later, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ And when challenged by Pilate the response was quite brilliant, ‘ We have no King but Caesar!’ And how they enjoyed the rhythmic pulse of ‘Let us now divide - -‘, referring to the seamless robe of Jesus. A couple of faltering entries couldn’t mar this performance. Clearly, the choir, under Edward Taylor had worked hard and succeeded in preparing this music as a dramatic telling of the passion, the smaller forces probably more in keeping with the works origin at St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig in 1724. So the Penrith Singers brought their performance to a comforting close, singing the chorale,
‘O Jesus, when I come to die,
Let angels bear my soul on high.’