JS Bach: St John Passion

Ardingly College Chapel, 6 April 2014

Conductor Robert Hammersley, marshalling almost 100 accompanied voices for 100 minutes, aimed to show, under a soaring vault, how Bach created "the highest emotional tension" in the Holy Week story to teach how Christ overcame his earthly suffering and rejection by the crowd who had hailed him as King on Palm Sunday. Thanks to internationally accomplished local soloists, led inspirationally yet calmly by tenor Lawrence Olsworth-Peter as Evangelist, by bass Robert Davies as Christus, with a strong chorus and sinfonia, a bold objective was vindicated. Stunned by the sustained tension, we realised that this oratorio is as masterful as Bach's St Matthew Passion, which emphasises Jesus's humanity.

Bach's St John Passion - here in English - has a greater role for an all-seeing Christ. Robert Davies's other-worldly composure and dignity convinced Pilate (a puzzled, then impressed John Baker, tenor). The drama and the goodness of Good Friday also came through in arias by Jane Haughton (alto), Jon English (tenor) and Eloise Irving (soprano). Jane, with an expressiveness and crystal-clear diction shared by every soloist, took us from quiet, deep gratitude to trusting affirmation of Christ's victory. Eloise's joyful praise of Christ's saving crucifixion pierced the Chapel's darker heights. Equally, Jon's subtle intonation captured human responses to an other-worldly intervention into power politics - from sympathy to awe to admiration.

Was there a weak link? None in the chorus, which thrilled us with Bach's layered super-charged waves of sound, as trial judges and crowd, mocking Roman soldiers and contemplative Lutherans. Just as strong were the semi-chorus (Christine Colbourne, John Baker and Sarah Janman) and instrumentalists, a polished ensemble around Richard Toms' organ continuo and Mike Lavelle's cello. Hammersley sustained an insistent but unhurried tempo to the choral conclusion - victory through suffering. Result? A triumphant dark Passion shot through with Easter light.

Review and photos by Melvyn Walmsley


Photo - M Walmsley.

Review by: Melvyn Walmsley



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