Bob Chilcott’s St .John Passion Premièred Auspiciously in Wells

 United StatesUnited States Chilcott, St. John Passion: Soloists, Wells Cathedral Choir, Instrumental Ensemble, Jonathan Vaughn (organ) / Matthew Owens (conductor), Wells Cathedral, 24.3.2013 (JQ)

Bob Chilcott: St. John Passion (2013) – world première
Ed Lyon (tenor) – Evangelist
Laurie Ashworth – Woman/soprano solos
Christopher Sheldrake (bass) – Christ
Andrew Mahon (bass) – Pilate

Matthew Owens and his Wells Cathedral choir clearly think highly of the music of Bob Chilcott. Last year they issued a fine recording of his Requiem (2010) and some other pieces (review) and shortly thereafter I went to Wells to hear them sing the work live in concert (review). Now Chilcott has written a setting of the St. John Passion for them and it was given its first performance in Wells Cathedral on Palm Sunday. The performance was given as a liturgical service – in place of Evensong, I fancy – and it was noticeable that the cathedral was very full.

Writing in the programme the composer said that he has had the good fortune to sing the role of the Evangelist in both of Bach’s Passion settings on several occasions in the past and he also retains vivid memories of singing Renaissance Passion settings during his time as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. “It is the austerity, the agony and ultimately the grace of this story that has inspired me to write this piece”, he says.

The setting takes just over an hour to perform. The principal male singers are accompanied by a small instrumental group consisting of viola, cello, brass quintet, timpani and organ. The two stringed instruments accompany the tenor Evangelist, Pilate is partnered by two trumpets and Christ by the three lower brass instruments and organ. Those different instrumental colourings and textures seem to me to work very well. In particular, the instruments accompanying Christ impart a becoming gravitas to his music. The strings sometimes provide mellifluous, very English-sounding accompaniment to the Evangelist’s more lyrical passages yet impart astringency at more dramatic points in the score.

As so often with a Chilcott choral piece the choice of texts is significant – and successful. For the Passion Gospel narrative, which is set in arioso style, he uses the King James’ Bible. At various points along the way the choir, sometimes joined by the soprano soloist, have four reflective meditations and the texts for these are English poems dating from the sixteenth century or earlier; without exception these texts are discerningly chosen and are placed at just the right points in the narrative. Where Bach would have had chorales in which the audience/congregation joined, Chilcott has five well-known Passiontide hymns, including There is a green hill far away and When I survey the wondrous cross. In this he follows the example of Stainer’s Crucifixion and even of more recent pieces such as Alan Bullard’s Wondrous Cross (2011). However, unlike those composers Chilcott has not used the traditional Victorian tunes but has written his own. These new tunes are not complicated but they’re highly effective. In fact, they’re “ear worms” – I find they’ve lodged in my memory. Cleverly, the first verse of each hymn was sung by the choir, which helped the congregation to pick up the tunes quickly.

The music in this work is at all times direct and engages the listener’s attention. The Evangelist’s narrative is consistently in arioso style. Early on in the story, the tenor’s music is lyrical and this, together with the stringed accompaniment, puts one in mind of such composers as Finzi. The style is recognisably English and none the worse for that. Later, in the Judgement Hall scenes the stringed instruments’ music is more acerbic, with ostinato-like rhythms strongly articulated. The Evangelist’s music becomes correspondingly urgent and astringent without ever losing melodiousness; hereabouts the name that comes to mind is, perhaps inevitably, that of Britten. Ed Lyon was a vivid narrator, inflecting the text with just the right amount of drama – in other words, he never overplayed his hand – and in the many lyrical passages his plangent, easy tone fell very pleasingly on the ear. His tone and diction were very clear at all times and I thought he was especially affecting in his delivery of the passages that tell of the Crucifixion itself and the death of Christ.

The characters of Christ and Pilate were assumed by members of the cathedral choir. Both singers were effective though I’m afraid I found Christopher Sheldrake’s voice somewhat un-ingratiating with vibrato rather overdone – something I’ve noted on CDs as well. Andrew Mahon’s voice was more pleasing and sounded younger and fresher. In fact I think the respective voices would have been better suited had the roles been reversed with Mahon singing the role of Christ. Some smaller, incidental solo roles were well taken by choir members.

The other principal soloist was soprano Laurie Ashworth. She impressed me in Chilcott’s Requiem, both live and on CD, and here again she made an extremely favourable impression. She has a warm, attractive tone and the notes and words are delivered very clearly. Her singing in the touching meditation, ‘Christ, my Beloved’ was quite beautiful and she was no less engaging later on in another meditation, ‘Jesus, my leman’.

The choir did extremely well. They made a strong, often biting contribution to the Judgement scenes, where they took the part of the crowd. However, they were heard to even better advantage in the four meditations which occur at strategic points in the score. These four pieces may well emerge in due course as free-standing Passiontide anthems, I suspect. Perhaps the best of them – by a short head – is the first one, ‘Miserere, my Maker’ a lovely, gently sorrowful a cappella setting of anonymous seventeenth century words. This was sung with fine feeling, the third verse being especially affecting. ‘Away vain world’ made an equally strong impression, both as music and performance. Another a cappella setting, this features a direct and attractive treble melody, which is typical of Chilcott, around which the other three parts weave most effective supporting lines.

The instrumental parts were expertly played and Matthew Owens drew an eloquent and committed performance from his forces.

I think this is a successful and most impressive piece of writing by Bob Chilcott. The musical ideas are accessible, as ever with this composer, and make a strong appeal to the listener and, I’m sure, to the performers. I’ve heard quite a lot of his vocal music over the last few years and a consistent characteristic has been his empathy for words and his skill in setting words to music that complements his chosen texts most effectively. That’s true also of this St John Passion. It’s a compact work, telling the Passion story effectively yet directly and succinctly, and Chilcott’s music is worthy of the subject. As the piece was heard in a liturgical context we were asked to withhold applause at the end. I’m sure, however, from comments that I overheard afterwards and the lengthy queue of people waiting to congratulate the composer that the piece made its mark; one would have had to be pretty stone-hearted not to have been moved.

I understand that the work will receive its American première in Texas this autumn. I believe Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion will be as durable as it is attractive and that it will prove to “have legs”. I hope that it will be taken up on both sides of the Atlantic by choirs who have an enterprising approach to Passiontide repertoire. They will find this a rewarding work and one likely to appeal strongly to audiences. It would be ideal if Matthew Owens and his Wells musicians could disseminate the work through a recording and I hope this may be possible before too long. In the meantime they have launched this fine new Passion setting most auspiciously.

John Quinn