A fine account of the St John Passion at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [8] – Bach: Soloists, Three Cathedral Choirs, Corelli Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor).  Gloucester Cathedral, 27.7.2023. (JQ)

St John Passion at the Three Choirs Festival © Dale Hodgetts

Bach – Johannes-Passion, BWV 245

James Gilchrist (tenor – Evangelist)
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone – Christus)
Rebecca Hardwick (soprano)
Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Gregory (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass-baritone)

Every year the choirs of the three cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester combine to give a concert at the Three Choirs Festival. This year, the chosen work was Bach’s St John Passion. In the days leading up to Easter 2023, I believe each choir performed the work in their respective cathedrals – I attended the Gloucester performance on Good Friday, in which the Corelli Orchestra also took part. The benefits of the choirs’ familiarity with the music were readily apparent this evening.

The performance was conducted by Geraint Bowen, the long-serving Director of Music at Hereford Cathedral. Bowen is a fine musician and has a wealth of experience; that showed this evening and I liked a lot of what he did to shape the performance. For example, the Judgement Hall scene in Part II was dramatically paced and had all the necessary tension. Also, Bowen’s pacing of the chorales was shrewd: some were taken quite swiftly – though not excessively so – but the more reflective ones were given the right degree of space; in short, he seemed to find the tempo giusto according to the sentiments conveyed in individual chorales and, just as importantly, in accordance with where each choral sat in the scheme of things. That said, there were some less satisfactory aspects. The great opening chorus (‘Herr, unser Herrscher’) was taken quite swiftly – nothing wrong with that – but for some undefinable reason, which I cannot quite pin down, it seemed to lack the last ounce of tension. In the finest performances, this magnificent chorus should grab the listeners attention, as it does with the likes of John Eliot Gardiner or Masaaki Suzuki; Bowen didn’t quite achieve that, I felt, well though the choir sang for him.

My main concern, though, was that on several occasions the arias were taken just a fraction too swiftly. The last thing one wants is for Bach’s music to sag, but all too often it seemed to me that just a fractionally more relaxed tempo would have given his soloists more space in which to phrase. As it was, in ‘Von den Stricken’ Ciara Hendrick did not get quite sufficient latitude to enable her to open up her voice and I think that is a key reason why the accompanying (excellent) wind players rather overpowered her; in addition, she didn’t seem able to phrase as well as I am sure she would have liked. Anthony Gregory was similarly disadvantaged in ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. It is a brute of an aria at the best of times, but at the speed Bowen adopted, the dotted rhythms in the tenor line appeared to be uncomfortably snatched. Swift speeds have become the fashion in these HIP days but, as I listened, I wondered if Bach had envisaged such a tempo for this challenging aria. These were not the only examples, but they will suffice. One should never judge a performance solely by the clock but I thought it was instructive that while the programme book indicated a likely running time of 118 minutes, I timed this performance at just 106 minutes (32 minutes for Part I and 74 minutes for Part II).

I mention this issue of tempo up front because, inevitably, it had a bearing on my view of some of the aria soloists. I heard Rebecca Hardwick sing in Gloucester Cathedral just a few months ago. On that occasion she was the soprano soloist in Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. Tonight, we experienced her in radically different repertoire. I liked her clear tone and vocal agility in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’. When she returned in Part II to sing the exquisite aria ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’, it really was not possible for her to float her voice tenderly, given that she had to project into such a large acoustic. However, she spun a lovely, seamless line and her singing was properly intense. I do not think we heard the best of Hendrick during ‘Von den Stricken’ for the reason I have already mentioned. The key aria ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ was another matter, however. Here, the conductor gave her all the space she needed – without dragging the tempo in any way – and Hendrick treated us to a dignified and poised account of the aria. Her sense of line was excellent and the sound of her voice was most attractive.

Gregory, who also sang the small role of the Servant in Part I, coped heroically with ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. We heard him at his best in Part II, however. In ‘Erwäge’, given just a little more space, he phrased most pleasingly. His clear, ringing tone was ideal and I enjoyed his singing very much, as I did when I heard his last contribution, the arioso, ‘Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt’. Matthew Brook was the most prominent of the four aria soloists because he also took the role of Pilate. I thought he brought a fine sense of authority to Pilate’s recitatives but he also illustrated that the Governor was caught in an unwanted position. Towards the end, when the choir, as the chief priests, protested at the inscription that Pilate had caused to be placed over the cross, the way in which Brook delivered ‘Was ich geschrieben habe, das habe ich geschrieben’ was addressed defiantly; the chief priests were put in their place. Brook was also excellent in his arias. The very tricky ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’, sung from memory and at a fast pace, was delivered splendidly. I was even more impressed, though, by the way he sang ‘Betrachte. meine Seel’; Brook has a large, commanding voice but here he fined everything down and sang the arioso smoothly and with quiet expressiveness in a sensitive, intelligent piece of singing. He was excellent throughout the evening.

Gareth Brynmor John made a fine impression as Christus. He sang the part with the necessary dignity. Hs tone was firm and full and the words came over clearly. Ideally, I would have liked a little more variety in the recitatives but this is a part that demands nobility most of all and he delivered on that.

There were two outstanding aspects to this performance. I have long admired James Gilchrist as a Bach singer; he is among the foremost Bach tenors of today and he has recorded this particular role at least three times. On disc a couple of years ago, he was memorable in the role of the Evangelist in Masaaki Suzuki’s recording of the St John Passion (review) but I have never had an opportunity to experience him singing the role live. So, when I learned that he had been booked for this performance I was determined to hear him. To say I was not disappointed would be a big understatement. It was Gilchrist’s communication of the text that particularly caught my attention. He carried a copy of the score but he barely glanced at it, usually just before commencing a recitative. This meant that he maintained an extraordinary degree of eye contact with the audience and that helped him to tell the story in a particularly intimate fashion; he drew us in. It seemed to me that he conveyed every nuance of the story, consistently varying his range of tone and expression. He was compelling in the vivid narrative of the Judgement scene and, at the other end of the emotional scale, poignantly touching in his final recitative describing the burial of Jesus. He identified completely with the text and gave a masterly demonstration of how to make recitative leap off the page to dramatic effect.

The other outstanding element lay in the contributions of the choir. They were amazingly accurate in fleet choruses such as ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ and articulated ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige!’ with venom. They made a particularly telling contribution to the Judgement and Crucifixion scenes in Part II. All the chorales were very well sung, as were the opening and closing choruses of the work. All sections of the combined chorus sang really well but I hope the adult singers will not mind if I single out for special praise the boy and girl choristers. What for ease of reference I will call the treble line came over splendidly all evening. Bach places great demands on all sections of the choir but it is a particularly daunting assignment for young singers – and all the more so when the work is sung in German. The choristers met the challenges head on, singing untiringly and accurately all evening; I loved the cutting edge brought to the treble line when the choir sang loudly. The familiarity of the combined choirs with the music was plain to hear and it reflected much credit on their Directors of Music, Geraint Bowen, Samuel Hudson and Adrian Partington.

The Corelli Orchestra played very well; the various instrumental obbligati, so crucial in the arias, were all delivered with great skill.

Despite my reservation about some of the pacing, this was a fine account of the St John Passion, which I admired and enjoyed.

John Quinn           

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