Review: Portsmouth Choral Union – St John Passion by Bob Chilcott

St Mary’s, Portsea, 16 March

Of all the settings of The Passion of Christ, the St. John Passion by Bob Chilcott is probably the most personal; it speaks to the listener directly, not just through the words, but also through the music.

The early evening event began with the anthem, ‘Lo, the full, final Sacrifice’ by Gerald Finzi, written in 1946. The text memorializes the celebration of the Eucharist and immediately we appreciated the tones of the refurbished organ, immaculately played by Ian Richardson. The soft singing of the hundred strong chorus was a credit to their conductor, David Gostick. The warm tone of the altos and the sustained sound of the sopranos were apparent throughout the famous anthem. The brief solos by Nicholas Sharratt, tenor and Johnny Herford, baritone were beautifully offered and complemented the subdued conclusion.

Bob Chilcott’s re-telling of the Passiontide story, as told in St. John’s Gospel, is a dramatic yet optimistic setting, which was written for Wells Cathedral in 2013. It was a good idea to rehearse the audience singing the hymns beforehand, in which we joined the choir during the performance.

The piece had an uplifting start, showing off the exciting range of both organ and choir. The story was told by the eloquent evangelist, Nicholas Sharratt and the sustained tones of the baritone, Johnny Herford, who sang the words of Jesus.

The hymns, set to new tunes by Chilcott, all flowed along nicely, allowing the singers to savour the words and were complemented by the soprano descants in the last verses.

The meditations were often unaccompanied, revealing the good balance of the choir and allowing the audience to appreciate the beautiful harmonies.

Situated high up in the organ loft, Ian Richardson, carefully accompanied the dramatic side of the story, which was accentuated by the pulsing ostinatos of the organ bass notes. The evangelist, too, gave us plenty of drama, whilst the baritone was suitably controlled.

The last hymn brought the work to an uplifting conclusion, with the high notes of the sopranos and organ soaring into the lofty spaces of St. Mary’s Church, Portsea.

Geoff Porter

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