St John Passion – J S Bach
The Choir of St James’ with The Australian Haydn Ensemble
St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney
28 March 2015
J S Bach’s St John Passion is not performed as often as his better-known St Matthew Passion, The St James’ performance in the church’s sympathetic acoustic was conducted by Warren Trevelyan-Jones who directed the church’s excellent choir of 18 singers and the Australian Haydn Ensemble, a period instrument group of 16 players.
The St John Passion is more dramatic than the St Matthew and it was the drama that this performance highlighted. From the opening dissonant and stabbing suspensions Trevelyan-Jones kept the performance moving with sensible choices of tempi and a feeling for the heightened emotion inherent throughout the work.
Performances of Bach’s Easter Passions depend heavily on the tenor singing the part of the Evangelist, and Richard Butler was superb in every way. His light but clear voice is very well-suited to Bach’s music and he uses it admirably. There was no sense of strain in the difficult high tessitura (although the performance used a lower baroque pitch) and his pacing and sense of drama matched Trevelyan-Jones’ interpretation. Butler also delivered the text sensitively and intelligently, and with a very wide dynamic range, so that some of the most poignant passage were barely whispered – though still audible throughout the church.
Dramatically, it is not ideal to ask the Evangelist also to sing the tenor arias. But these arias are of almost super-human difficulty so that they can be successfully performed by very few singers. Butler undertook the challenge and gave a good rendition of each of them. He demonstrated fine vocal control in both the jagged chromaticism of Ach, mein Sinn and the longer legato phrases of Erwäge. Indeed after the latter aria he also convincingly changed his tone when resuming the role of the Evangelist. All in all, his was a memorable performance.
The other main ingredient of a good Bach Passion performance is the choir, and the choir of St James consistently delivers excellent results. It is a well-blended, tightly-knit group: confident, energetic and well-prepared. The sopranos have a strong, clear assertive sound and the altos display a good body of tone. The solid bass sound provides a firm foundation and it is only the tenor section that could ideally be a little stronger.
One of the attractions of performances at St. James is that the soloists generally emerge from the choir. Although these singers mostly do not have the presence and authority of mainstream professional soloists their contributions are stylistically more cohesive. It is a trade-off that is usually worth making.
The part of Christus was sung by Philip Murray who is an ensemble singer with a warm and rich tone. He also displayed sensitive phrasing in the aria Betrachte, meine Seel. Andrew O’Connor sang the role of Pilatus with a solid bass sound and a sense of Pilatus’ authority. The remaining small roles and arias were all competently sung though the identification of individual singers was unfortunately not always clear from the printed programme.
Underpinning all this vocal work was the sterling service provided by the Australian Haydn Ensemble playing on period instruments. This diligent group provided consistently reliable support throughout. Especially notable were the fine carolling of the two wooden flutes in the first soprano aria Ich folge dir gleichfalls, and the flute and oboe da caccia in the second soprano aria, Zerfließe.
Special praise must be reserved for the hard-working continuo group, with Laura Moore taking pride of place with her constantly alert cello playing. She also provided a sensitive viola da gamba obbligato for the alto aria Es ist vollbracht. It was also gratifying to note that Trevelyan-Jones included both a harpsichord (Anthony Abouhamad) and organ (Alistair Nelson) in the continuo group, as there is persuasive evidence that Bach did likewise.
Performances by the Choir o St James’ have now become self-recommending and the next concert in their subscription series will be of a capella music on Saturday 9 May.
Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©
Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London. He is an avid attender of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music. He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel. He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.