Review: Bach St John Passion at the Petersfield Musical Festival

Reading Piers Burton Page’s excellent programme notes, one wondered what the good people of Leipzig, attending the first performance of Bach’s “St John Passion” on Good Friday 1724, would have thought had they known the same work would still be being performed 294 years later. Surprised? Well probably! Amazed by the standard of performance – well, yes! For this was the opening choral concert of the Petersfield Musical Festival’s 2018 season where Bach’s genius shone through. The large audience were attentive throughout and one could have heard the proverbial pin drop at several points in the narrative.

Bach takes no prisoners when it comes to what he asks his singers to do. The opening chorus is demanding, long (21 pages in my copy, not including the Da Capo) and quite relentless. The Festival Chorus handled this with aplomb – from the opening “Hail” through pages of semiquaver runs, a multitude of accidentals and some very high notes in all departments. I was particularly impressed by the range of dynamics Paul Spicer coaxed from his singers; there was some excellent quiet singing and good phrasing. In fact the choral singing throughout the evening was of a high standard. Alright there was one moment when the basses parted company with the rest of the choir, but I doubt if many in the audience noticed unless they were following the score. The chorales, with Bach’s spine-tingling harmonies, worked their magic and were sung with great sensitivity, excellent balance and one could “hear the words!”

The five soloists were all accomplished although one has to say Ruairi Bowen’s magnificent performance as the Evangelist rather over-shadowed the rest.  From his first recitative Bowen took the audience into his confidence and held them spellbound throughout; there were moments of high drama, compassion and tenderness – his word painting held us in thrall and his clarity and vocal range were splendid. This was a performance to be treasured.  He was ably supported by Sung Kyu Choi’s Christus.  Choi has a rich, warm, very mellifluous voice ideally suited to the part.

The other soloists have less to do; I particularly liked soprano’s Catrin Pryce-Jones’s I follow thee gladly with its charming accompaniment of flutes and bassoon and I would mention here the excellent continuo playing of David Burrowes (‘cello) and Mark Dancer (chamber organ). James Geidt has a big bass voice but the unforgiving acoustics of the Festival Hall occasionally got the better of him and the words were hard to hear. Not so though with Aaron Godfrey-Mayes (tenor) who, although somewhat overshadowed by Ruairi Bowen, sang with clarity and good diction. Hamish MacLaren (counter tenor) again had a pleasant if somewhat under-powered voice and was a little overwhelmed by the orchestra.

I was talking to someone after the concert who said, “I normally find the St John Passion a bit long…but not tonight!”.  I wholeheartedly agreed.  This was a performance with vigour, drama and musicality. Paul Spicer drove the narrative on with well-chosen tempi and his direction was, as always, meticulous and detailed and the pared down Southern Pro Musica were on good form.

I had heard via the grapevine that the rehearsals for this evening had been, at times, hard work. All I can say is that the hard work paid off.  Congratulations to all concerned.

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