Monday, 11 November 2013

BREMF: St John Passion

Bach St John Passion
This year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), the theme of which has been Passion, concluded on 10 November 2013 with a performance of J.S.Bach's St John Passion given by festival forces in St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton. John Hancorn conducted by BREMF Singers and BREMF Players, leader Alison Bury, with Andrew Griffiths as the Evangelist, George Humphreys as Christus and soloists Mhairi Lawson, Esther Brazil, Nick Pritchard and Robert Davies.

Using a choir of 40 and an orchestra of 15, this was a small to medium-scale performance of Bach's work. Hancorn's tempi were lithe and lively and he encouraged the BREMF Singers to sing lightly. The soloists were all young singers bringing a freshness and vitality to the performance. Tenor soloist Nick Pritchard had just won the first prize in the London Bach Society's Bach Singers Prize with mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil also as a finalist.

The venue, St Bartholomew's Church in Brighton is a large atmospheric space which is used for many of BREMF's concerts. Unfortunately Hancorn's tempi and general approach failed to take account of the very definite personality of the St Bartholomew's acoustic. The glorious opening chorus failed to tell, registering simply as a fuzzy buzzing and humming as the speed and lightness of touch applied by orchestra and singers meant that the details simply evaporated and just did not register. Only the long oboe lines seemed to count for anything. We were sitting in row 10, and judging by people's comments during the interval, the sound quality was worse further back. Theses aural effects were worst in the busier choral passages, so that the various turbae counted for very little, and the lovely final chorus was similarly rendered rather fuzzy.


Under Hancorn's direction the hard-working choir made quite a soft-grained sound which would have worked well in a more sympathetic space. The chorales were the best of the chorus numbers, here the music had time to tell and we had a chance to appreciate the fine quality of the choir's performance. Though even here there were odd aural effects, with Hancorn's speeds meaning that one note had not died away significantly before the next one started, giving Bach's harmonies an interestingly exotic cast.

Thankfully, such acoustics work well with solo and small groups of voices, so that the solo items were beautifully vivid. Andrew Griffiths made a highly mellifluous Evangelist, with an enviable freedom in his upper registers. His diction was excellent and we hardly needed the libretto to follow his German. Whilst he was beautifully expressive and, in the key moments, very moving, I felt that this was a promising performance which was still a work in progress. I did not yet feel that he meant every word, something that is key to a great Evangelist, but that on evidence of this performance he has the potential to be a fine Evangelist indeed.

George Humphreys brought commitment, nobility and stature to Christus, making every word count and using his operatic experience to great effect. Humphrey's voice has a significant vibrato element which is rather noticeable in such historically informed company, and which took a little time to settle.

The four soloists were each strongly characterised and brought a nice freshness of approach.

Soprano Mhairi Lawson was brightly communicative with some lovely detailing and a real feeling of joy in Ich folge dir gleichfalls and she gave us an easily floated line in Zerfliesse, meine Herze making the piece seem simple but moving. Mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil was nicely modulated with a lovely sense of melancholy and fine passagework in Von den Stricken meiner Sunden. She was rather moving in Es ist vollbracht shaping the phrases beautifully and bringing brilliant drama to the middle section. But she seemed rather wedded to her music, looking down to much and failing to communicate well with her audience, though there was much to enjoy in the simple beauty of her voice.

Tenor Nick Pritchard is a highly communicative singer, bringing his operatic experience to bear but not overly so. In Ach, mein Sinn he was dramatically vivid, with nice accurate detail, Erwage, wi sein was sung with great commitment and was very moving, and brought intense power to his arioso Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt. Bass Robert Davies sang the role of Pilate, doing so with a nicely understated sense of drama. In the arioso Betrachte, meine Seel he gave a subtle, thoughtful performance which hit the spot perfectly. His aria Ilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen was taken a little to fast for the acoustic but Davies was quietly confident with a lovely even tone. In Mein teurer Heiland he gave us some finely shaped long phrases in a beautifully relaxed performance.

There was some lovely orchestral playing. Whilst details were fuzzy in the larger scale movements, we were treated to some really fine solo moments with the two flutes in the soprano arias, two violins in the bass aria and solo cello. Each of these came across with a superb combination of quality and commitment.

What made this performance was the sheer vividness and freshness of the solo singing. Andrew Griffiths dominated as the Evangelist in a nicely relaxed manner, with each of the soloists making strong contributions.

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