A Passion to Inspire from Ex Cathedra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J S Bach, St John Passion, BVW 245: Ex Cathedra Choir, Academy, Soloists and Baroque Orchestra,  Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 5.4.2012 (GR).

Ex Cathedra, under their founder and director Jeffrey Skidmore, have been performing Bach’s St John Passion for an astonishing 35 years. Commenting on a recent performance of Bach’s better known and later St Matthew Passion by Leipzig’s Thomanerchor here in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall last month, Skidmore said he thought the music spoke for itself. This accolade could equally well be directed at his Maundy Thursday rendition of Bach’s first Leipzig Passion. Under the inspiring direction of Skidmore, each of the forty-six strong chorus, eight Academy members and twenty instrumentalists contributed to a greater appreciation and understanding of the greatest story ever told.

All seven soloists were from the ranks of the Ex Cathedra chorus. Major arias were presented front of stage with lesser recitative parts delivered from their respective choral positions. Skidmore had divided his singers into two with the junior members – the sopranos in ripieno who added weight to the chorales – positioned centrally, the orchestra at the front. These arrangements produced evenness and balance to their sound, an effect immediately apparent in the opening Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord our Master, No 1); the pitching semiquavers set out Bach’s stall. The first soloist to show in the Betrayal and Capture section was Jeremy Budd, who fulfilled the taxing role of the Evangelist admirably (usually with the secure backing of James Johnstone on organ). Throughout Budd was the ideal linkman, for the most part relaying the story in a clear, straightforward, effective style (in German with surtitles). As a sinner acknowledging the debt to his Saviour in Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (To free me, No 11) alto Matthew Venner had excellent support from the woodwind section: Gail Hennessy and Mark Radcliffe oboes, Rachel Brown and Graham O’Sullivan flutes and Mike Brain bassoon.

In the Denial sequence soprano Susanna Fairbairn was eager and bright in her aria, befitting of the phrase Mein Leben, mein Licht (My Light and my Life, from No 13), an excellent flute accompaniment, contributing much to the catchy Bach tune. The Evangelist then told of the High Priest’s questions to Jesus. Prominent in Marcus Farnworth’s recitative reply as the Messiah was his Was fragest du mich darum? (Why question me? from No 14).The subsequent choruses were splendid for different reasons. The unaccompanied hymn-like Wer hat dich so geschlagen (Who has hit you like that, No 15) exhibited some beautiful harmonies, in sharp contrast to the short clipped phrases of Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer? (Areyou not another of his disciples? No 17). Scored for a tenor who had broken faith with his Lord, the aria Ach, mein Sinn (O my troubled mind, No 19) came next, which Samuel Boden sang with both passion and heartache. The choir pensively closed Part 1, reflecting upon Peter’s denial with Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück (Without thinking, No 20).

The Crucifixion story, based upon excerpts from John Chaps 18 & 19, resumed in Part II with the Interrogation and Flagellation as Jesus was brought before Pilate. Maestro Skidmore skilfully moved the narrative along, varying the tempo to suit the exchanges between the accused, the Jews and their Roman governor, all seamlessly linked by the Evangelist’s commentary – a riveting passage. A graphic description of the Son of God’s fate followed. , the bass arioso Betracte, meine Seel (My soul,think now, No 31)tenderly pleaded by Greg Skidmore, concentrated on his crown of thorns, ably assisted by the comforting strains of Lynda Sayce’s lute. This poignant mood continued in No 32 as Boden described how his back stained with blood is just like the sky (Decca Music Group translation). For me, Boden delivered the best solo of the evening – combining a warm, effortless and smooth style with impressive emotive inflexions. Sayce plus two muted violins (including leader Margaret Faultless) cellos (Imogen Seth-Smith and Andrew Skidmore) and the keyboard of Johnstone, added a magical baroque sound to the extended aria. As Pilate struggled to reach a decision, the chief priests tried to make it for him with a horrifying Kreuzige, Kreuzige! (Crucify, Crucify! No 36). In the middle of Pilate’s dilemma, the choir mused upon the situation with Durch dein Gefängnis (Your Imprisonment, Son of God, No 40) a chorus that always reminds me of William Horsley’s hymn tune to ‘There is a green hill far away’.

The passage entitled The Death of Jesus (begun at No 53) saw Budd at his finest: the division of the robe, the care of his mother, the wine-soaked sponge and the relinquishing of the spirit were all related with sincerity and feeling. The alto aria Es ist vollbracht (It is accomplished, No 58) was another highlight with Venner’s tone quality perfect for the lament, colours echoed by the viola da gamba of Seth-Smith and cello of Skidmore. Skidmore’s cello was also the perfect complement for the bass aria that followed (No 60).

Although the renting of the temple curtain from the closing Burial section lacked impact, I enjoyed Boden’s brief arioso Mein Herze (My Heart, No 62)and the soprano’s aria Zerfliesse mein Herze (Dissolve my Heart, No 63) along with the oboe da caccia solo. The magnificent Ex Cathedra choir had nearly the last word as the repeated Ruht Wohl (Lie in peace, No 67) rang celestially around the Symphony Hall – we could just as easily have been in a cathedral. Several scholars have debated the aptness of the Ach Herr (O Lord, No 68) that was the final number of Bach’s score, anticipating the resurrection on what is essentially a Good Friday sermon in sound. What a tragedy the St Mark Passion was lost and Johann Sebastian never wrote an opera!

Geoff Read