A Deeply Satisfying and Moving St. John Passion at Three Choirs Festival.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2. Hereford Cathedral, 23.7.2012 (JQ)

Bach – St. John Passion, BWV 245

James Oxley (tenor): Evangelist
Alex Ashworth (bass):  Christus
Natalie Clifton-Griffith: (soprano)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Simon Wall (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass-baritone & Pilate)Three Cathedral Choirs
Music for Awhile Orchestra
Geraint Bowen (conductor)


According to Anthony Boden’s book, Three Choirs. A History of the Festival, there may have been an embryonic meeting of the Three Cathedral Choirs as early as 1709. There was a documented meeting in 1719 (Worcester) followed by meetings in the next two years at Hereford and Gloucester. Thus, it seems that what became the Three Choirs Festival was already an established regular occurrence even before Bach composed his St. John Passion in 1724. Those early gatherings were far less extensive and musically ambitious by comparison with what the Festival became. As the Dean of Hereford reminded us before this evening’s concert, the early meetings were opportunities for the members of the three cathedral choirs to get together “for music and fellowship.” The annual festival concert by the combined choirs, therefore, takes us back to the festival’s roots. Furthermore, as the Dean pointed out, it presents an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the essential day-by-day work that each of these choirs carries out in their respective cathedrals.

So it’s right to consider first the contribution of the combined choirs to this performance of Bach’s great Passion narrative. Of course, in Bach’s day he would have had trebles on the top line – though perhaps not quite so many of them as was the case here and at least some of the boys might have been older than their twenty-first century counterparts. It is a huge test of stamina and concentration for young boys to sustain the singing of such demanding music over a timespan of some two hours, even if they do get opportunities for breathers during the recitatives and arias. These young trebles passed the test with flying colours and, if anything, got better as the evening went on. The men were in good voice also so the choral side of this performance was very good indeed. The choir played a very lively part during the scene in Part II where Christ is before Pilate. ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ was sung strongly and with energy. Just as good was the demanding ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ which, at an appropriately fast tempo, was crisply delivered. Just before that the cries of ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige’ were sung with venom, the boys’ chromatic top line cutting through the texture tellingly. The chorales were very well done throughout, with plenty of variety; here, Geraint Bowen’s sensible, fluent pacing was an important factor. I’d just make one comment about the choir. They were placed immediately behind the orchestra and the first of the two rows of trebles stood on the same level as the orchestral players. I think the treble sound might have projected even better if the choir had been moved back just a bit, with everyone up one level, so that the trebles in the front row had been able to sing out over the heads of the players.

There was a good team of soloists. Natalie Clifton-Griffith has a light, clear voice which she projected very well. I enjoyed the sound she produced very much. In ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ the ornamentation is very demanding and though it was well negotiated a slightly easier tempo might have helped her to invest the aria with more expression. I thought we heard her to much better advantage in ‘Zerflieβe, mein Herze’ which she phrased most expressively, investing the music with the right degree of poignancy. Simon Wall, like any tenor in this role, had a pretty thankless task, at least as regards ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. Frankly, this aria, with its jagged rhythms and leaping vocal line, is a brute. As seems to be the fashion nowadays it was taken at a brisk speed and I think Mr Wall might have been more comfortable and able to make a bit more of the music at a slightly steadier pace. He was probably happier with the slower, longer lines of ‘Erwäge’. He sang this well enough though I have heard other singers invest it with more expression.

Iestyn Davies was excellent. He sang ‘Von den Striken’ splendidly, his tone clear and evenly produced. Though the tempo was fairly swift – though not excessively so – Davies shaped the line expertly. Fittingly, he reserved his finest singing for ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ Here, his delivery was technically outstanding and deeply affecting and the control was admirable. In fact, I can’t recall hearing a better account of the aria from a countertenor. The way Davies sang the last phrase of the aria was memorable in its simple intensity. With the benefit also of a fine gamba obbligato, this was a very special part of the whole performance. Matthew Brook was in very fine voice. He sang the recitative part of Pilate intelligently and did his arias very well. I sympathised with him over ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’. Geraint Bowen’s choices of tempo were, for the most part, apt and convincing but here I felt he pressed the speed too much. As a result it was well-nigh impossible for Brook to articulate clearly the demanding runs, most of which lie in the lower end of the soloist’s range. In addition, the little choral interjections sounded, at this speed, as if the singers were pecking at the notes. We got a much better view of Brook’s vocal prowess in ‘Betrachte, mein Seel’. Here he could deploy a very pleasing rounded tone and excellent, even legato. He sang the aria warmly and with fine expression. I also enjoyed very much ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ for the same reasons.

I’ve heard Matthew Brook sing on many occasions but I can’t recall hearing Alex Ashworth before. I was impressed. He seemed ideal for the role of Christus. Tall and dignified in bearing, he invested his music with dignity. His tone was evenly produced and fell very pleasingly on the ear. He also enunciated the text extremely well. I liked the range of colours he deployed and also the imagination he brought to the role. The poignant dignity and vocal colouring that he brought to the passage where the dying Christ entrusts his mother to the care of St. John made this a very moving moment.

Ultimately, any performance of either of the Bach Passions stands or falls by the Evangelist. At short notice James Oxley deputised for the indisposed John Mark Ainsley. I’m sure that any disappointment the audience may have felt at not hearing Mr Ainsley melted away within a few minutes of James Oxley beginning his narrative. He was a superb Evangelist. Though he may have been called into the performance at short notice there was no sign of this at all. Often singing with minimal reliance on the copy, the amount of eye contact with the audience was a notable feature of his delivery. This, together with his imaginative and committed delivery of the text made his narration absolutely compelling. His German sounded impeccable to me and he identified with the story and Bach’s music in a wonderfully communicative way. As for his singing, that was quite wonderful. He produced the notes, even the highest ones, with evident ease and the ringing, clear tone was a consistent delight as was the range of vocal colours that he employed. His entire performance was very special but one highlight I noted was the line of recitative in Part II, “Von dem an trachtete Pilatus, wie er ihn loslieβe”. So exquisitely was that line delivered, the music posed and shaded so sensitively, that it made me catch my breath.

Geraint Bowen directed the performance stylishly and with great assurance. He was properly sensitive to the work’s more reflective stretches yet he evidently appreciated that this is the more dramatic of Bach’s two surviving Passion settings. The success of the scene of Christ’s trial was in large part due to the drive and sense of theatre that he brought to the music. In particular, he palpably urged his choir to give of their best and they obliged. With good and stylish support from the Music for Awhile Orchestra, including excellent obbligato playing and an excellent continuo team, this was a deeply satisfying and moving performance of the St. John Passion.

There’s one last thing to say. At each Festival the substantial programme book, beautifully produced, is invariably a mine of interesting information and well written notes and essays. However, even by those high standards the programme note for this performance, by Timothy Symons, was of exceptional quality.

John Quinn