Inspiration and poignancy as the St George’s Singers return after the pandemic with St John Passion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Soloists, Peter Durrant (continuo organ), St George’s Singers, Baroque In The North / Neil Taylor (conductor). Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 26.3.2022. (DJ)

St George’s Singers perform St John Passion at the RNCM

Bach – St John Passion, BWV 245
Ruairi Bowen (Evangelist, tenor)
Lizzy Humphries (soprano)
Amy Holyland (alto)
Robin Morton (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass)
Terence Ayebare (bass)

Two years, almost to the day, after all live Eastertide performances of the St John Passion and indeed anything else were cancelled by the pandemic, and two years before its tercentenary, this glorious work is finally back on the agenda. Manchester audiences can enjoy it again with the same orchestra and the Cathedral Choir on 15 April. English Touring Opera are once again bringing their version with local choirs to surrounding cities, while on 2 April The William Byrd Singers are giving the St Matthew Passion at Stoller Hall, not only with Baroque instruments, but at Baroque pitch.

The enduring appeal and frequent performances of the Passions since Mendelssohn introduced them to Victorian Britain is due to Bach’s extraordinary ability to engage and move us, enhanced by this nation’s unparalleled choral tradition. Choirs amateur and professional, large and small, aspire to perform both of them, but the St John is especially popular due to its shorter length.

Bach wrote no operas – composers at that time tended to be appointed to specialise in different genres – but the St John is a very operatic work. Indeed I have seen staged versions in theatres in Lisbon and Vilnius and nearer home from Streetwise Opera in the former market in Castlefield. It has recitative that propels the story, solos reflecting on the events, and choruses that contrast the mob baying for blood and the awed believers. It is punctuated with Bach’s harmonisations of hymn tunes that would have been familiar to every worshipper when it was first performed in Lutheran Leipzig in 1724. Mendelssohn wrote his own chorales for key moments in Elijah, while Michael Tippett’s solution set spirituals familiar to many for the same purpose in A Child of our Time.

While St George’s Singers gave a concert performance, it provided plenty of drama as conductor Neil Taylor inspired the forces to depict the events. This chorus is much larger than many who sing this work, especially with a small Baroque orchestra, but the sound was well-balanced, agile, spot on in tune, diction clear, never over-singing, and crucially, alert to the tempi, especially essential in the short and dramatic choruses.

Key to any successful Bach Passion, and with the most to sing, is the Evangelist, and Ruairi Bowen was superb in this role. The two bass soloists assigned the words of Pilate and Jesus – Matthew Brook and Terence Ayebare – were equally compelling, with at times some arresting operatic eye-contact. The contrast in their voices was perfect, and when Brook stopped being Pilate for the bass’s two arias, moving to a spot near the continuo section was an inspired piece of theatre. The other soloists – Lizzy Humphries, Amy Holyland and Robin Morton – have less to do but gave fine performances of their glorious arias, complemented by excellent woodwind obbligati. Indeed, the flautist stood up for one number, highlighting the equal partnership Bach expected.

It is always revealing to hear Bach and other Baroque music performed by specialists and here Baroque In The North – led by Amanda Babington – used quieter period instruments and technique at faster tempi than used to be the case. The mismatch in numbers between band and chorus was mitigated by the sensitivity and incisiveness of the chorus. The continuo section was exemplary, with Peter Durrant expertly revealing the different colours of the chamber organ.

The evening began movingly with a Ukrainian Orthodox hymn written in Kyiv 400 years ago. It is from a totally different religious and musical tradition to the one Bach knew, but it segued perfectly into the anguished opening chorus. Unlike the St Matthew Passion, the St John ends not with grieving – both those triple time extended choruses surely equally affecting – but with a chorale of praise that affirms the power of hope and redemption. Even in ‘normal’ times, it is an uplifting conclusion. The pandemic has proved the importance of music, especially of live performance with an audience, and the determination of those who treasure it to ensure its future is undimmed. This is equally true of ravaged Ukraine where musicians – like the cellist playing among the ruins – have been bravely performing wherever and whenever it is feasible. War, disease and destruction are things we can all do without, but all the suffering, death and ruination inspire others to an even greater determination to counter the forces of darkness. No better inspiration exists than Bach’s St John Passion, making the performance of it by the St George’s Singers all the more poignant.

Donald Judge

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