Friday 7 April 2023

The sheer sense of engagement from the young choral singers was a joy: Bach's St Matthew Passion from Choir of King's College, London at St John's Smith Square

Title page of Bach's autograph score of the St Matthew Passion
Title page of Bach's autograph
score of the St Matthew Passion
Bach: St Matthew Passion; Choir of King's College, London, Hanover Band, Joseph Fort; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 5 April 2023

A young choir and young soloists bring a remarkable sense of engagement and exploration of Bach's monumental work

Bach's sons called it the Great Passion and when their father died, the score and the parts were divided so that two of them had the wherewithal to perform it. It represents a significant expansion of Bach's usual format as well as being around double the duration of typical passion settings of the previous generation of composers. Surviving evidence, including the church's two organ lofts, suggests that the forces used by Bach could not have been that large and that his singers were hard worked. The solo tenor 1, for instance, was expected to sing the role of the Evangelist, the tenor one solo, plus the chorales, choruses and turbae; that is still a big ask, even if there were ripieno singers to help in the choruses and chorales. 

The solo parts also seem to have been laid out so that the first quartet did all the heavy lifting, the second quartet have far fewer solo arias and are more involved in the chorale arias, where a soloist from choir 1 sings an aria alongside a chorale from choir 2. This layout of parts would be ideal for a line-up where not every singer was equally experienced. And that is the challenge for modern performances, how do you introduce singers to such a marathon gradually.

For the performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion on Wednesday 5 April 2023 as part of the St John's Smith Square Easter Festival, Joseph Fort conducted the choir of King's College, London and the Hanover Band with soloists Danni O'Neill (soprano 1), Ciara Hendrick (alto 1), Sam Harris (tenor 1), Alex Bower Brown (bass 1), Ruby Bak (soprano 2), Clare McCaldin (alto 2), Charlie Hodgkiss (tenor 2) and James Priest (bass 2). 

Sam Harris (tenor 1) sang the Evangelist and Alex Bower Brown (bass 1) sang Christus, as Bach would have expected, but choruses, turbae and chorales were sung by the separate choir, as is the modern style of performance. The soloists were all young, and in fact, Ruby Bak (soprano 2) was a member of the choir, whilst choir members also supplied the other solo roles.

With over 30 singers and a similar number of instrumentalists, the platform was very full indeed. The soloists sat at the side, off stage, and for those in choir 1, getting on and off stage was something of a logistical nightmare, leading to unfortunate hiatuses between movements. And, despite adjustments to the hall's lighting during the evening, we never reached an ideal position whereby there was full light on the soloists' faces.

But that said, there was plenty to enjoy indeed.

The choir sang with a lovely bright sound, youthful and lithe, but what mattered most was the sense of engagement. This was notable from the beginning of the opening chorus, and throughout the work, the young singers created a sense that they were really part of this narrative. Much as I enjoy small-scale performances of Bach's passions, there is much to be said for a large choir (properly balanced with the correct sized orchestra) in the work's large-scale choruses, and this performance did not disappoint. In the chorales, the singers were responsive and sensitive, whilst the turbae were wonderfully vivid with words spat out at times.

Tenor 1, Sam Harris made a stylish Evangelist. He has quite a high-tension voice, but the tessitura held out no dangers for him and at the end of the work he still sang with admirable freedom. This was a finely musical performance, low key at first but full of intensity and drama as the work developed. His words were admirably clear, and my only qualm was that at times he seemed a little too reliant on his score, but then the vagaries of the lighting cannot have been a help. What was impressive was quite how well he sustained the narrative across the whole duration. Harris' account of his recitative, 'O Scherz!' brought real drama to the piece, whilst the aria 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' combined vitality with a lovely sense of ease, complemented by some fine oboe playing.

Bass 1, Alex Bower-Brown made a strong, sober Christus. Bower-Brown has a finely resonant instrument that he used intelligently, and he wasn't afraid to bring out the rather trenchant side of the character. But there were plenty of touching moments too. His aria 'Komm, susses Kreuz' was strong stuff indeed, whilst 'Mach dich, mein Herze' was sober and serious.

Soprano 1, Danni O'Neill brought poise to the recitative 'Wiewohl mein Herz' followed by a highly characterful 'Ich will dir mein Herz schenken', though an element of drama in O'Neill's voice hinted at wildness. 'Aus liebe' was finely done with strong tone and drama. Alto 1, Ciara Hendrick had a bright, focused voice, fine phrasing and a lovely sense of the text, in each of her arias there was the feeling that they meant something. Her opening aria in Part Two had a nice intense sense of line, whilst 'Erbarme dich' combined a shapely line with real warmth. 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' began with a real sense of joy, leading to something like rapture. At the end of part one the soprano/alto duet 'So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen' was strong, and certainly not an easy moment in the drama.

Soprano 2, Ruby Bak had an engaging presence and combined real commitment with a clear sense of line in 'Blute, nur, du liebes Herz!' Alto 2,  Clare McCaldin brought a nice element of drama to her recitative, 'Erbam es Gott!' with quite an interior account of 'Konnen, Tranen'. Tenor 2, Charlie Hodgkiss was intense if a bit careful in 'Geduld'. Bass 2, James Priest brought a nice sense of commitment to 'Gerne will ich mich bequemen', and 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum' was concentrated and interior, but in both arias, Priest felt rather understated, I wanted him to be more outgoing, in a word louder.

The orchestras provided fine support with some lovely solo moments. I was particularly taken with the cello continuo from George Ross in orchestra 1, but the solo violins of Theresa Caudle (orchestra 1) and Anna Curzon (orchestra 2), and viola da gamba of Joanna Levine,  and all the various wind players made some striking contributions.

This wasn't a perfect performance but it was full of good things. The sheer sense of engagement from the young choral singers was a joy, whilst the sense of the young performers developing their engagement with Bach's monument was palpable.

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