Posts Tagged ‘St John Passion’

Passion Wins Out

In Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on March 29, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Review – St. John Passion (Old Royal Naval College, Wednesday 27 March 2013)

Evangelist – James Preston
Simon Dyer – Christus
David Jones – Pilate

Sopranos – Alysha Paterson, Angela Hicks & Jilian Christie
Altos – Leah Blakelock & Gordon Waterson
Tenors -Thomas Drew, William Davies & Guy Elliott
Bass – James Newby, Ashley Mercer & Jonathan Smith

Old Royal Naval College Chapel Choir
Southern Sinfonia

Ralph Allwood (Conductor)

What I love most about concert going in London is the vast range available. I don’t only mean by genre but also in terms of the range of musicians – professional, semi-professional and amateur – who make the time and take the effort to perform.

And despite the meticulous planning that goes into booking concerts, opera and recitals at London’s major venues it’s also great to be able to walk past a venue, notice a poster and spontaneously book a ticket.

And that’s what happened when I was in Greenwich last week. I picked up a flyer for a performance of the St John Passion in Wren’s most beautiful Painted Chapel and bought a ticket.

For Easter wouldn’t be Easter without attending a performance of one of Bach’s Passions.

This particular performance was the Old Royal Naval College Chapel Choir and Southern Sinfonia, directed by Ralph Allwood.

And it was a valiant performance. It reminded me of my own participation in student performances many, many years ago. Indeed one of my first university performances was the St John Passion as principal oboist. Bach wrote beautifully for the oboe family. I still on occasion pull out my book of Bach studies and amble through the obbligato parts within.

And by valiant I mean that on the whole the quality of the music making was of a high standard if marred by a few flaws that could have been resolved in rehearsal.

Clearly with Allwood’s long career in choral music, the particularly memorable and impactful moments were the choruses – many dramatic interjections in the Evangelist’s narrative – within the Passion.

The two exceptions – sadly – were the first and penultimate choral movements. The opening chorus – so beautifully crafted by Bach to create an immediate impression of both tragedy and penitence – was taken at such a slow and laboured tempo that at times it threatened to unravel. Initially I thought it might be to compensate for the acoustic of the chapel but this was not the case. The Painted Chapel has a warm and immediate acoustic perfectly suited to Bach as subsequent choruses demonstrated. Clearly Allwood was seeking to create the necessary mood but it was a tempo-too-slow and simply dragged.

Indeed the opening bars fleetingly brought to mind the great Passion performances of the likes of Klemperer or Münchinger but also quickly the realisation that it lacked their finesse and innate ability to pick out the individual voices.

But more disappointing was what can only be described as a plodding Ruht Wohl. The programme referred to warnings made to Bach that he shouldn’t ‘secularise’ his religious music and that this movement – a minuet – was a subtle ‘cocking of his finger’. There was no sense of the lilt and lightness of touch – vocally and instrumentally – that Bach wrote into every line of this movement. A shame as it represents redemption and hope at the end of the Passion. It didn’t come close.

And similarly while the chorales were intelligently shaped, Allwood directed them with no real differentiation from each other.

The soloists were drawn from the Chapel choir. Made up of choral scholars as well as volunteers from the local community as an ensemble they made a wonderful sound. However the individual soloists were a mixed bunch. I think it’s a brave – and admirable – decision to draw soloists from the choir but I did wonder if perhaps a lack of rehearsal time or even bad casting resulted in a sliding scale in terms of the individual performances.

One thing that did strike me wasn’t so much a lack of interpretation and stylistic attention to detail but more that they all struggled with maintaining the vocal line, more often than not literally running out of breath. I wonder if this has more to do with the differences between singing as a member of the chorus and as a soloist.

Annoyingly the programme didn’t mention the soloists in any way that allowed clearer identification except by guess work but there were some stand-out singers.

For example the bass who sang the arioso Betrachte, meine Seel; Gordon Waterson who sang a most poignant Es Ist vollbracht! and the resonant bass of Simon Dyer’s’s Christus.

And my reference to a valiant performance is particularly relevant to James Preston’s Evangelist. This is a role that requires both supreme stamina and the ability to communicate with conviction the unfolding narrative. This role was a stretch too far for Preston, whose voice became increasingly stressed, at times sounding like he was even struggling to reach the cadences.

The Southern Sinfonia supported the choir admirably and particular praise should go to the continuo players Steve Colisson and Matthew Burgess and the obbligati in Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärter Räcken. Sadly the wonderful aria Zerfließe, meine Herzen, in flutender Zähren was marred by the soprano’s intonation problems and messy obbligato playing from the oboist.

And yet despite these flaws Bach’s music won out. Having not attended a live performance of the St John Passion for some years, the concert in Wren’s Painted Chapel reminded me of the mastery, magnificence and devotion he wrote into every note.


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