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Dramatic Story-telling

A performance of J S Bach's 'St John Passion',
reviewed by MIKE WHEELER


Bach's St John Passion still suffers, to some extent, from the image of being a poor relation of the St Matthew. But, focussing as it does more on dramatic story-telling than contemplation, it can be just as potent an experience, as this performance [New London Chamber Choir and Sinfonia Viva, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, UK, 28 February 2007] demonstrated.

The New London Chamber Choir was trained on this occasion by Jeremy Summerly, and its contribution was particularly impressive, right from the opening chorus -- firm, focussed and urgent. Throughout the piece the singing was nimble, punchy or profoundly meditative as required, with the chorales taken at a nicely flowing tempo.

Conductor Nicholas Kok kept the entire work moving at a brisk but not hurried pace, with the dramatic cut-and-thrust of the opening sequence of Part 2 coming across particularly vividly.

Daniel Norman handled the demands of the role of the Evangelist -- managing the difficult balancing act of detached expressiveness -- with complete conviction. James Rutherford's Christus had warmth and dignity, qualities he also brought to the bass arias.

Of the remaining principal soloists, Fflur Wyn (standing in for an indisposed Sophie Daneman) was bright and eager in her first aria, plaintive in the second. Tenor Andrew Staples brought a ringing, almost heroic quality to his Part 1 aria, 'Ach, mein Sinn'; counter-tenor Will Towers found an aptly dark tone for 'Von den Stricken meiner Sünden' in Part 1, and a poignantly inward one for the outer sections of 'Es ist vollbracht' in Part 2. The contrast of tone and care over voice/instrument balance in this number was especially notable. The smaller roles were more than capably taken by members of the choir (Peter Johnson's effective Pilate requiring special mention).

There was some impressive obbligato playing; I particularly liked the two muted, almost vibrato-less violins successfully imitating violas d'amore in 'Erwäge, wie sein blutge färbter Rücken'.

The last two numbers were the culmination-points of the evening. The chorus 'Ruht wohl' had a grave sarabande-like tread, while the concluding chorale ended the performance on a note of ringing affirmation.

Copyright © 7 March 2007 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK





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