J.S. Bach: St John Passion

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 26 April 2015

On Thursday 26th March this year, the Dunedin Consort gave a performance of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Aberdeen’s Music Hall. It was invaluable therefore to have a chance to hear the earlier of Bach’s two surviving Passion Settings, The Passion according to St John, so soon after the other. St Machar’s Cathedral was full to capacity for Sunday’s performance given by Aberdeen Bach Choir with Aberdeen Sinfonietta and a whole galaxy of star soloists along with three voices from the choir, Bruce Irvine (Peter), Richard Coleman (Officer and Servant) and Angela Slater (Maiden) taking these smaller parts.

Aberdeen Bach Choir of course is far bigger than the Dunedin Consort and therefore this was going to be a quite different sort of performance, not so clear and transparent in the delivery of Bach’s sung counterpoint perhaps but making up for that with the dramatic impact and choral excitement that you get from the big chorus. The crowd scenes worked tremendously well with the chorus playing the parts of disciples, soldiers or the mob as well as their beautifully well balanced singing of the meditative chorales - twelve of them interspersed between the dramatic actions of the work. The final chorale, sung unaccompanied at the end was absolutely magnificent - the Bach Choir more than ever proving themselves capable of the most astonishing vocal stamina. They sounded every bit as fresh and full of enthusiasm as they had at the opening of the work. It was the sopranos who dazzled us with their laser-like singing in the first chorus with the word Herr, repeated again and again. The counterpoint from the rest of the chorus was not particularly clear delivered by such a big chorus but it gave us a dramatic and wonderfully exciting opening to the work.

Much of the St. John Passion is given over to a dramatic telling of the story; as Peter Parfitt wrote in his superbly presented programme, “The St John Passion is akin to the opera Bach might have written had the city fathers in Leipzig not denied him the opportunity”. As a result, the various soloists have an important part to play and especially since some of them have comparatively small parts, it was very generous of the Bach Choir to hire so many superb singers for the event.

There is one singer of course who does not have an insignificant role to play and this is the Evangelist who in a sense gives us the voice of St John himself. Nathan Vale had exactly the right tonal qualities for the Evangelist, purity, clarity of diction and the ability to deliver the dramatic impact of the text throughout the work. Two other singers were essential to the drama of the story, Colin Campbell as Christus and Peter Thompson as Pontius Pilate who has a surprisingly large role in this version of the passion. Both of them gave warm and sympathetic performances with more than a little leavening of dignity – just what both parts demanded.

Bach gives his four other soloists the contemplative arias throughout the work, two each for the soprano and counter-tenor and three each for tenor and bass, the bass working along with the chorus in two of his arias. Counter-tenor Nicholas Spanos sang with luminous clarity in his arias, supported in the first by two oboes and in the second, Es ist vollbracht! by Alison MacDonald’s superb cello playing. Soprano Elinor Rolfe-Johnson soared effortlessly to the most delicious top notes supported first by two flutes and then later by flute and cor anglais. Tenor Ronan Busfield supported by the strings in his first aria, Ach, mein Sinn, gave a sizzling performance. His second aria, Erwäge wie sein blutgefärbter Rükken…, full of long held notes and dazzling melismas had two muted violins and continuo.

Bass Dominic Barberi had a similar backing in his Arioso recitative with harpsichordist David Gerrard using the softer lute stop on his instrument. Barberi’s singing was of fine quality with lovely transparent top notes. I imagine he would be a fine lieder singer! I have mentioned members of the orchestra but they were all absolutely splendid adding so much to this performance.

I have mentioned members of the orchestra but they were all absolutely splendid adding so much to this performance.

contributed by Alan Cooper