Bach, St. John Passion with Manchester Camerata and the St.George’s Singers

J. S. Bach, St. John Passion: St George’s Singers and the Manchester Camerata, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 19.4.2011:

Julia Doyle, soprano

Clare Wilkinson, mezzo soprano

Andrew Staples, tenor

Mark Stone, baritone

Matthew Hargreaves, baritone

Conducted by Nicholas Kramer.

My recent review of the BBC Philharmonic’s performance  of Verdi’s opera Otello, performed at the Bridgewater Hall three nights before this concert, began with the words ‘what has gone round comes round’ again’. I was referring there to how the Hallé Concerts Society  – back in  in May 1968  –  were able to mark Sir John Barbirolli’s twenty five years with the orchestra by giving a concert performance of the  same Verdi   masterpiece. This time of course the event marked  Gianandrea Noseda’s  farewell as the BBC Philharmonic’s  Musical Director after nearly ten years with the orchestra.

I might well have started with the same words in respect of this performance of Bach’s first great masterpiece and its relationship with the St. George’s Singers. They were founded as an amateur choir in 1956 and carry the name of the church where they started up in Poynton, a large village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester, where they rehearse each week and perform from time to time. From the start, the choir had high aspirations and by 1958 they had grown sufficiently to perform Bach’s St. John Passion, the same masterpiece they performed this evening. Currently the choir has a membership of over one hundred, and ninety of them gave yet another vibrant and committed performance of one of the great choral pieces. In the intervening fifty plus years between the two performances of the St. John’s Passion the choir has become more aspirational with respect to what it does – and also where and with whom. In their aim to present the great choral masterpieces they have sought to hire the best soloists and perform in the most prestigious venues; in Manchester that means The Bridgewater Hall.

I first heard them in performing Elijah and later Bach’s later St Matthew Passion (see review) and then hisB Minor Mass (see review ). It was evident to me from that time that the Manchester area was home to another truly great amateur choir comparable with that associated with the Hallé Orchestra. The latter is able to perform without the worries of having to wholly finance its concerts with regard to venue and soloists to match its abilities. It was with interest that I noted that this performance was a joint venture with the specialist Manchester Camerata, the two organisations sharing the burden and, hopefully, the benefits, artistically and fiscally, of their combined support. The well-filled Bridgewater hall points to success in that field. Not to be ignored is the association with Nicholas Kramer, a world-renowned baroque specialist working with Chorus Director Neil Taylor.

If the LSO Chorus opened Verdi’s Otello with strength and vibrancy on Saturday night, the St. George’s Singers matched them in the opening Chorus Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord, our ruler). They maintained that high standard throughout the work, not merely in strength, but in verbal nuance and sensitivity, each section of the choir, whether in unison or counterpoint, articulating the words as well as the meaning, the concluding Chorale (Ah Lord, let your dear Angels) being particularly well contrasted in its plaintive appeal.

If the choral contribution is important to any success of this early Leipzig piece, even more so is the singing of the Evangelist who, along with the tenor solos, has the largest solo part in the story. I had not heard the tenor Andrew Staples before, but was immediately taken by the timbre of his voice in the Evangelist’s opening recitative Jesus ging mit (Jesus went with his disciples). His light flexible tenor moves between head voice and chest without a break to give a seamless integrated whole. An edge to his chest voice allows for expression and meaning and allied with his honeyed head voice and vocal characterization was the centerpiece of the evening. Matthew Hargreaves, tall and angular of stature and singing without a score, was an imposing Christus, his tone more covered than the strong-voiced Mark Stone as a dramatic Pilate. Both female soloists were of a similar high standard. Julia Doyle, singing in the high tessitura with an appealing purity, notably in the aria No. 35 (Dissolve my heart). Her alto counterpart, Clare Wilkinson, was sonorous and equally impressive in No. 30 (It is accomplished).

Nicholas Kramer and the Manchester Camerata played an equally important part with the choir and the excellent soloists to give a memorable night for lovers of Bach’s creation as we approach Easter.

Robert J Farr