Saturday, 13 February 2016

St John Passion from Eton College and Winchester College chapel choirs

Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Layton, James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Ashley Riches,  Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton at St John's Smith Square
Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music,
Stephen Layton, James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Ashley Riches, Clint van der Linde,
Andrew Staples, Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton at St John's Smith Square
Bach St John Passion; James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Gabriel Ali, Angus Benton, Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Layton; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 12 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Visceral and involving performance of Bach's passion

Eton College Chapel Choir and Winchester College Chapel Choir came together with the Academy of Ancient Music, leader Bojan Cicic, and five alumni of the colleges under the baton of Stephen Layton to give a remarkable performance of Bach's St John Passion at St John's Smith Square on Friday 12 February 2016. James Gilchrist was the Evangelist with James Birchall as Jesus, Ashley Riches as Pilate, plus soloists Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, and the soprano solos shared between trebles Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton.

With over 80 singers on stage this was in no way a period performance; John Butt's programme note informed us that Bach probably never used more than eight singers. With the majority of singers being under twenty (there were a few older extras discernible in the ranks), the sound of the choir was very specific with a softer grain to the lower voices. They made a vigorous bright sound, with a lovely directness to it and great enthusiasm. This meant that the turbae were in particular extremely vivid, and Stephen Layton clearly relished the sheer violence that the singers could produce spitting out words like kreuziger (crucify); even the opening chorus's cries of Herr were visceral. This was not to imply that their performance was without subtlety, just that the young singers displayed greater enthusiasm and stronger involvement than older singers tend to. In the chorales this came over with a sense of the projection of the text. Inevitably the balance was not always perfect, economics and the size of the platform probably precluded the instrumental ensemble being scaled up to match the choir (as happened with Handel performances in the later 18th century). This meant that in the choruses some of the orchestral detail was lost, you could see the inner string players being busy, but hardly detect them.

James Gilchrist sang the role of the Evangelist in an impassioned and committed manner, making the performance dramatic and highly involving. He sang virtually off the book, and made the text the prime mover in his performance. Gilchrist sang on the edge of his voice, and every detail was geared to conveying the full range of the text. But there was no skimping on things, and the high-lying music was floated beautifully and, where necessary, extremely intensely. His interaction with the two major soloists, James Birchall as Jesus and Ashley Riches as Pilate was very strong.


Birchall sang with quite a dark, grainy tone and kept gesture to a minimum, the result made a sober, rather sombre Jesus and I sometimes wanted a bit more explicit expressiveness from him. The centrepiece of this passion is the long scene with Pilate and the combination of Ashley Riches and James Gilchrist's operatic experience made this long scene truly visceral drama. Not that it verged into the over operatic, but Riches made a strongly characterful Pilate (I loved his 'what is truth' moment). Stephen Layton encouraged this by keeping things moving, the turbae almost crashed into the dialogue and there was a terrific sense of dramatic movement rather than over reverence.

The two soprano solo were shared between the two trebles, with Gabriel Ali singing 'Ich folge dir' and Angus Benton singing 'Zerließe, mein Herze'. Both sang with confident bright tones, and if I say that the trickiness of Bach's writing was apparent that is not to decry the supreme achievement of both boys in giving such creditable and involving performances.

The alto solos were sing by Clint van der Linde. 'Von den Stricken, meine Seele' was sung with strong tones and moments of intensity, though van der Linde's performance did not move me as much as it should. He was accompanied by a strong bass line and some lovely oboe playing. 'Es is vollbracht', with a fine viola da gamba solo from Jonathan Rees, was full toned, plangent and sober with great contrast in the vigorous middle section.

Andrew Staples sang the solo tenor arias and arioso. The vividly performed 'Ach, mein Sinn' combined wonderful power and intensity with very pointed rhythms. Staples had a knack of combining a vibrant sound with a correct fluidity of line. This continued with 'Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbte Rücken' where we enjoyed the upfront way Staples performed the passagework. His performance had great presence, with a feel for the shape of Bach's lines. His final arioso 'Mein Herz', was equally vivid.

Ashley Riches combined Pilate with the bass arias and ariosos, showing great dexterity of characterisation when moving between them. In the arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' he really caressed the vocal line, gradually increasing in intensity and complemented by the viola d'amore playing of Bojan Cicic and Jane Rogers (who also played in the following tenor arias). The aria with chorus, 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' was vigorous with some finely controlled runs and evocative cries of 'Wohin?' from the choir. The aria with chorale, 'Mein teurer Heiland' combined more fine passagework with a lovely sense of movement throughout the piece.

The smaller solos were taken by members of the choir, Hamish Rogers (maid), Alex Banwell (servant), Mark Williams (servant) and William Crane as a strong Peter.

Throughout there were superb contributions from the instrumentalists, providing strong orchestral support to match the vividness of the choir as well as fine grained solo contributions in the arias. The continue playing of cellist Joseph Crouch and organist Alastair Ross.

With so many young performers it wasn't surprising that St. John's had a capacity audience, though as many of them inevitably knew each other through school connections there were moments when it felt as if we had wandered into a school event. The combination of the sense of drama from James Gilchrist's Evangelist and Ashley Riches' Pilate with the visceral sound of the choir made a a very specific and very involving performance of Bach's St John Passion.

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