Bob Chilcott’s St. John Passion Revived in Wells Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bob Chilcott; Soloists, Wells Cathedral Choir, Instrumental Ensemble, Jonathan Vaughn (organ),  Matthew Owens (conductor), Wells Cathedral, 29.3.2015 (JQ)

 Bob Chilcott: St. John Passion (2013)


Christopher Steele (tenor) – Evangelist
Laurie Ashworth (soprano)
Neal Davies (bass) – Christ
Darren Jeffrey (bass-baritone) – Pilate


On Palm Sunday 2013 I was in Wells Cathedral to hear Matthew Owens conduct the first performance of Bob Chilcott’s St. John Passion (review). Palm Sunday 2015, which fell almost two years to the day since the date of the premiere, saw the revival of the piece, again given as a liturgical performance. In the intervening period Owens has made a fine recording of the piece, involving many of the artists who first performed the work (review). This live performance in Wells Cathedral was given to mark the launch of the CD.

 Traffic congestion en route to Wells meant that I arrived at the Cathedral a couple of minutes after the performance had begun. This meant that I was unable to sit, as I’d expected, near to the front of the nave as I had done for the first performance; instead I slipped into a seat right at the back. However, my initial disappointment at being so far back soon vanished because I was able to hear this performance from a different, less close perspective.

 The performers projected the music very successfully. The choir are clearly very well versed in the music and, following the performance in the score, I was struck by how attentive they were to the dynamics. Clearly Matthew Owens has trained them exceptionally well, as we know from the choir’s many recordings. The small instrumental ensemble also came over well. The only slight drawback was that, seated at a distance in the resonant acoustic, I found that the abrasive, rhythmically acute music of the Judgement Hall scenes sounded somewhat blurred. The music was taken, correctly, up to tempo but the natural decay of the sound as it travelled down the nave introduced some inevitable blurring. This was not a major issue, however.

The soloists did very well. Laurie Ashworth has made the soprano solos in this work – and in Chilcott’s Requiem – very much her own and it was a delight to hear her sing this music once again. Neal Davies represents luxury casting in the role of Christ and his firm voice invested Christ’s music with presence. Special mention must be made of tenor, Christopher Steele. He was a late replacement when the scheduled singer (Matthew Minter) was obliged to withdraw at very short notice due to illness. The Evangelist’s role in this work is a big one and there can’t yet be that many tenors who know the part. Fortunately, Steele had been singing the role in a performance the previous night in Lancaster. On the Sunday morning he drove down to Wells – a distance of over 200 miles – to save the day. I doubt he would have had time for much, if any, rehearsal with Matthew Owens but he seemed to me to fit seamlessly into the performance. More than that, he sang extremely well and put the words over with conviction

 The first time I heard the piece it made a positive impression on me. Now, with the benefit of having heard the recording several times, that favourable impression has been reinforced. In particular it’s noticeable how Chilcott skilfully weaves several motifs into different parts of the score, almost in the manner of leitmotifs. The score is attractive, sincere and I should think that the music lies well within the compass of good amateur musicians. As such, like everything that this composer writes, it’s designed to communicate and also to be taken up and enjoyed by musicians.

 At the first performance the cathedral was very full and I was pleased to see another very good attendance for this performance. Clearly, Chilcott’s piece made a strong impression first time round. It seemed to me that the congregation – this was a service, not a concert – sang with enthusiasm in the hymns which Chilcott has placed at salient parts of the score. These are original tunes; they are uncomplicated – and therefore easy to pick up – but very effective. I can see these hymn tunes establishing themselves outside the full score. Equally, the four Meditations for the choir, some of which involve the soprano soloist also, may well establish themselves as separate Lenten anthems. However, even if some parts of the work are eventually spun-off in this way I’m sure that the full score of St. John Passion will become a firm fixture in the Passiontide choral repertoire, especially now that there’s an excellent recording to bring it to a wider audience.

 This excellent performance by Matthew Owens and his colleagues of Chilcott’s fine Passion setting was a very appropriate way to begin Holy Week.

John Quinn    

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