“Heavenly Flowers Bloom” as Cantemus Offer “a Sweet Harvest” in the St John Passion

United StatesUnited States  Bach: Guy Cutting (tenor), Stuart Young (bass), Rebecca Donkin (soprano), Helen Pugsley (soprano), Elizabeth Irvine (mezzo), Jon English (tenor), Ed Ballard (baritone), Cantemus Chamber Choir, Rejouissance (Simon Jones, leader) / Huw Williams (director), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 21.3.2015 (LJ).

Bach: St John Passion, BWV 245

Though not performed in the devotional context of a church service, the Cantemus Chamber Choir’s performance of Bach’s St John Passion BWV 245 (originally composed for Good Friday, 1724) in Cardiff’s RWCMD was suitably spiritual. An enlightening and beatific atmosphere is essential for any rendition of this work and in this respect Cantemus were not lacking. With the scripture (recitative or dramatic chorus), poetry (aria solos or chorus) and hymns (chorales), Bach’s rendition of the events of the Gospel invite personal contemplation. Interestingly, this oratorio was designed to fit into the Good Friday Vesper liturgy, for which the main event was the sermon, placed between the two halves of Bach’s musical setting. An example of this dramatic symbiosis of music and words was evinced as the chorus sung with equal measures of compassion and desperation “Where to?” in response to Christ’s crucifixion in Golgotha. It is clear that in Bach’s St John Passion Jesus is portrayed as the eternal and omnipresent ruler; he is implored as the true son of God and the music illustrates how he becomes tenderly and triumphantly glorified even in the lowliest points of his Passion. In the gloriously emphatic opening “Herr” (‘Lord, our ruler, whose fame is glorious in all lands’), the choir expressed this sense of Christ’s radiance and resolve.

Soloists and choir were supported by the skilled musicians of the period ensemble Rejouissance (led by Simon Jones and consisting of fourteen musicians) who added a degree of intimacy to such a grand oratorio. Of particular note was Jonathan Manson who performed on the viola da gamba alongside mezzo Elizabeth Irvine for the exquisitely refined yet emphatically emotive ‘It is accomplished!’ aria. Manson’s cello accompaniment as Guy Cutting (tenor) sang with remarkable vocal elasticity “Pilate now took Jesus and had him flogged” from Part II (‘Interrogation and Flagellation’) and during the chorus’ performance of “Consider how his blood-stained back / in every way is like the heavens …” (‘Condemnation and Crucifixion’), was exceptional. As Evangelist, Cutting’s performance was strong and sustained, and must be commended for his exceptional depth of feeling as he sung “Then Peter remembered the words of Jesus and went out and cried bitterly” from Part I (‘Peter’s Denial’). Stuart Young (bass) as Jesus had a mellow, sonorous quality to his voice which complemented Cutting’s timbre well. Of the other two soloists, Jon English (tenor) sounded a little breathless and gruff; however Ed Ballard (baritone) was consistent and melodious.

Rebecca Donkin and Helen Pugsley, the two soprano soloists of Cantemus sang ‘I too will follow you with joyful steps’ and ‘Melt, my heart, in floods of tears to honour the Most High’, respectively. Where Donkin was raspy and hesitant, Pugsley was serene and crystalline. With the delicate accompaniment of flautists Ashley Solomon and Yu Wei Hu, Donkin’s nervousness was quelled by the lithe, expressive sounds of Rejouissance’s wind section. Pugsley’s performance brought out the similarities betwixt Bach’s ‘Melt my heart’ and ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ from his Hunting Cantata.

Lastly, my final commendations must go to Huw Williams, the Swansea born music director. Williams’ conducting and movements at the podium were sprightly and energetic as he displayed attentiveness and vigour throughout. The overall sound was charged with his indefatigable vitality and unflagging drive. Replete with motion and sensitivity, this performance of Bach’s St John’s Passion was a pleasure to be a part of.

Lucy Jeffery

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