Concert: St John Passion (15 March 2008)
Polished St John Passion
Easter may be at its earliest this year, but Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir's polished performance of Bach's St John Passion in the Cathedral belied the shortness of rehearsal time. Philip Scriven conducted the choir, the Birmingham Bach Orchestra and a fine team of soloists in a dramatic and yet intimate performance, in which the events of the first Holy Week were clearly and meaningfully presented by both soloists and choir.
The poignant opening winds leading to a strong opening chorus set the tone, swiftly established by the refined voice of Christopher Watkins who made a splendid Evangelist. His diction was always clear, as was that of the choir throughout the performance, and his arias were sensitively performed, if perhaps a little under-powered at times. Perhaps the new edition text, which certainly clarified the story in general, may not have sat well with his arias.
The versatile soprano Anna Crookes, who bravely sang at very short notice, had a pleasant fresh quality to the voice though her habit of frequently dropping her tone gave a somewhat stilted effect to the musical line. Assured performances by Francis Ambrose as Peter and Pilate and the two voices in the choir gave splendid support to the excellent Thomas Guthrie, whose human and sincere portrayal of Jesus, helped by fine diction and an intensely felt understanding of his role, created a true focus of our attention.
Catherine King gave a competent and sensitive account, particularly in her It is fulfilled aria, with her mellow tone and strong technique providing a faultless performance, marred only slightly for me by the heavy-footed continuo which did seem somewhat unvaried throughout the work. This did not however deflect from a most moving ending to the aria, with everyone in the building seeming to hold their breath as Jesus died.
The chorus was responsive throughout, and made both the reflective and dramatic parts of the text come alive with a notably splendid bass line at We have a sacred law, and the crowd's cries of "crucify" becoming more intense and confident as they progressed. The final chorus did seem rather more of a dance than a calm reflection, and the more reflective chorales were a little fast for my taste, leaving us wishing we had longer to enjoy Bach's magnificent harmonies, but their variety was admirable, and the final chorale was a glorious summation of the entire work, giving us all hope where there could so easily have been despair.
Megan Barr, May 2008