Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Humanity, Energy and Poise: Bach's St John Passion at the Holy Week Festival

St John's Smith Square
St John's Smith Square
Bach St John Passion; Nick Pritchard, Neal Davies, Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Hiroshi Amako, Ashley Riches, Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 30 Mar 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Bach's St John Passion for Good Friday at St John's Smith Square's Holy Week Festival

Stephen Layton has been bringing his choir Polyphony to St John’s Smith Square on Good Friday for over a decade and I have sat in the audience for several of their St John Passions, struck by how different they seem from one year to the next, depending on the orchestra and the soloists. The band this year (30 March 2018) were taken from the Britten Sinfonia playing on period instruments, with a versatile and flexible chorus (Polyphony), a young quartet of soloists (Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Hiroshi Amako, Ashley Riches), a young Evangelist (Nick Pritchard) and a seasoned Christus (Neal Davies).

I was relieved to find, on entering the hall on Friday, that the chairs had been moved back to their usual positions overnight, having been turned to face the organ for previous events of the SJSS Holy Week Festival [see my review of Wednesday’s concerts]. The red curtain was open and we had the grey drizzle outside as a backdrop.

Nick Pritchard has sung the Evangelist with English Touring Opera, and here sang the whole thing from memory, using the score as he would a stage prop. He was both an observer of the action and a participant in it, spelling out the importance of what was unfolding, whilst showing us that he was affected by it. He created some wonderful moments of tension: the interminable wait after Peter’s denials, and the heartbreaking ‘und weintete bitterlich’ – Peter’s bitter weeping as he realises what he has done.

Neal Davies as Christus brought out the preordained nature of it all.
His was a strong, almost matter-of-fact portrayal and all the more moving for that. The vulnerability belonged to the chorus, speaking for us, both in the spacious, serene chorales and ‘Ruht wohl’ (Rest well)at the end, and in the confusion and chaos of the big dramatic numbers.

This was a very human chorus. We had the sense that Layton could do anything he wanted with them: waves of anger in ‘Kreuzige!’ (Crucify him!), incomprehension when urged to hurry ‘Wohin?’ (Where?) – ‘nach Golgatha’. This was not an amorphous mob, they were individuals, hysterical when they deliver Christus to Pilate: ‘we don’t know what he did but we’re sure it was bad’ – and we can’t break the law. In a week when antisemitism is in the news (again) we heard individuals with their own fears.

Layton’s experience with the piece – and the venue – showed at all times: from the slow brewing of the orchestral introduction that burst thunderously into ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ of the first chorus, and the hissing of the s’s in ‘dessen Ruhm in allen landen’ and ‘lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ (casting lots for the cloak) bouncing off the pillars and grabbing our attention, and then the earthquake at the end.

The soprano Anna Dennis was poised in her high-lying solos, mezzo Helen Charleston has a lovely rich and flexible voice but slightly underpowered for the band. The tenor Hiroshi Amako has a voice that is well suited to the piece and, with experience, will become more confident and enjoy the wonderful violin duet of ‘Erwäge’. Ashley Riches, also singing Pilate (and on a night off from his first Count Almaviva in the ENO Figaro [see Robert’s review]), was very comfortable with all of it.

The Britten Sinfonia showed the huge range of what they do: the aforementioned violin duet; Jonathan Rees’ impressive switching from cello to viola da gamba (for ‘Es ist vollbracht’) and back again; Nicholas Daniel’s glorious oboe and cor anglais playing, and much, much more.

I have to report that the owner of the mobile phone that went off in the silence after Christus’ ‘Es ist vollbracht’ has not left the country; on Saturday at Verdi's Macbeth the same jaunty ringtone echoed through the ROH auditorium as the Refugee Chorus was fading away to nothing.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Atmosphere at the expense of text: Wednesday at St John's Holy Week Festival - concert review
  • Challenging the traditional concert format: I chat to pianist Alexandra Dariescu about Nutcrackers, creative entrepreneurs and women composers  - interview
  • A very humane comedy: Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Jolly Good Show! - Charles Court Opera's The Mikado (★★★★)  - opera review
  • The Guardian Angel: voices and violin in concert (★★★★) - concert review
  • Fire and water: Ji Liu  (★★★) - CD review
  • En Francais: Verdi's original Don Carlos in Lyon (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Electronic opera: Roger Doyle's Heresy (★★★) - CD review
  • Moving, thoughtful, thought-provoking - Christoph Prégardien, Julia Kleiter and Julius Drake at Temple Song (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Exploring her heritage: Rebeca Omordia introduces the Nigerian art music which features on her new CD - Interview
  • Real discoveries: the songs of Nikolai Medtner (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Gluepot Connection - 20th century British composers linked by their watering-hole - CD review
  • A sense of intelligent conversation: John Jenkins complete four-part consort music (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Taking wing: Royal Academy Opera's Flight launches the new theatre - opera review
  • The lure of the East: Soraya Mafi's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Rakastava: the music of Sibelius from Chamber Domaine  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Tradition and innovation: I chat to Hugo Ticciati, violinist and artistic director of O/Modernt - interview
  • Home

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