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Review: St John Passion


A moving interpretation of a timeless masterpiece.

Easter seems increasingly to be the province of the early music scene in Sydney. And thankfully so.

Christ Church St Laurence, in conjunction with the instrumental forces of the Muffat Collective Orchestra, treated Sydney audiences to a historically-informed performance of Bach’s St John Passion. Performing this work is no mean feat. It is a masterpiece that calls for precisely the sort of musicality that these two groups offer – the first being one of the oldest continuing choral groups in Australia, and the second a lively Baroque ensemble of more recent vintage.

The orchestra bursts out, like the blast of a wintry blizzard, with the instrumental introduction to that most famous of choruses – ‘Herr unser Herscher’. It is in part a showpiece for the oboes; and Adam Masters and Kailen Cresp excelled here. Sam Allchurch seemed to take a leaf out of Gardiner’s book, making the choir gradually whisper each successive ‘Herr’, to delightful effect. The oboes’ virtuosity was similarly on show in the first aria – ‘Von den stricken meine Sunden’ – where they interweave in often-dissonant canonic imitation. Stephanie Dillon’s voice fit right into this instrumental conversation; so much so that it gave the effect of really being a trio between three equal voices. One could viscerally feel the torment and anguish so strikingly evoked by the text.

Another aria worthy of mention was the soprano aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’. Its innocent, almost pastoral, affect, the particular instrumental combination, and the upward stride that evokes a child skipping, make it redolent of Bach’s earlier arias based on the divine injunction to ‘follow’ truth – think ‘Ich folge Christo nach’ from BWV 12 or the bubbly ‘Wir eilen mit schwachen’ from BWV 78. Chloe Lankshear makes each word her own, like when she forcefully depicts the words ‘zu schieben’ (‘to drive me forward’). Special mention should be made of Mikaela Oberg’s expressive performance on the flute.

The succeeding recitatives focus on the essential contrasts in this Passion setting – the tensions between truth and falsity, right and wrong, the individual and the tyranny of the heckling mob. ‘If there is something wrong with what I said, then show that it is wrong’. Hence the prefatory inspiration for Bacon’s later essay on ‘Truth’: “What is truth” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

The harmonies and dissonances in the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlangen’ set the scene perfectly. Allchurch makes the choir sing alone, without instrumental accompaniment, in the second part of that chorale – ‘Ich, ich und meine Sunde’ – which not only heightens the introspective quality of those passages, but puts the Choir of Christ Church St Laurence on full display. Richard Butler’s execution of the tortured ‘weinete bitterlich’ was astounding, and Allchurch cleverly made the pace much slower than most recordings would have it, in order to tease out Peter’s torment and the jarring chromaticism of the bass strings.

The final aria of the first part – ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ – was performed at a brisk tempo, which gave the instrumental introduction the quality of a French overture. Matthew Greco despatched these passages with ease. The jumpy melismas for voice were also no match for Butler as tenor. Especially at this tempo, they remind one of the leaping passages of the tenor aria, ‘Die schaumenden Wellen’, from BWV 81. And this is perhaps for good reason – we have the similar theme of a disoriented soul being tossed here and there, as though it were caught in a tempest.

After a short interval came Part 2. The Choir bursts out with an incredibly imposing, almost haunting, chorale that brings out the basal hymn’s modal origins. The ‘Ware dieser’ chorale is performed, as it should be, in a terrifying chromatic frenzy, which conveniently sets the trope of the raving mob for the rest of the Part.

Then we have the hauntingly-introspective ‘Betrachte’ aria, performed masterfully by David Greco. Equally masterful were Tim Willis and John Ma on violas d’amore, which set the scene for the Erwage. Butler’s mellifluous voice worked perfectly for the ‘rainbow’ imagery in the Erwage aria. He sneaks in a Monterverdian tremolo on the word ‘regenbogen’, which is fitting because the shape of the wavering viola d’amore motif throughout the aria is that of a rainbow. The long held notes were performed spectacularly by Butler, who controlled dynamics so powerfully that at times the notes dissipated gradually into thin air. Another example of his versatility is the surprising force with which he declaims ‘Golgotha’ in an otherwise soft recitative.

With the ‘Sei gegruset’ we have again the howls of a deranged mob, and the surrounding recitatives are declaimed accelerando and with great dramatic force. Butler did very well as Evangelist in driving the narrative’s momentum, and it is no surprise that he is so highly sought after to perform this role around Australia.

The ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ is a sheer cacophony. But because of the independence of the voices in the Choir, one can sense an order among the chaos. This is important because Bach often gives prominence, especially in his cantatas, to ‘Gesetz’, or ‘Bund’, by having the voices break out into dense counterpoint (like the stile antico fugue in ‘Es ist der alte Bund’ from the Actus Tragicus) to depict the rigidity of ‘law’.

With the words ‘Es ist vollbracht’, we know a heart-rending aria is on its way. So we have the earthy timbre of another member of the viol family – the viola da gamba. Dillon sang to great effect, and again the grief was palpable and visceral. The sudden flash of a victory-call seems almost in vain as the singer delves into despair again, to depict the battle between life and death that is central to Easter (as Bach reminds us in BWV 4 – ‘es war ein wunderlicher Kreig’). Yet the protracted silence that followed spoke louder than anything that preceded it.

In much the same vein as the ‘Eilet’ aria is the bass aria ‘Mein teurer Heiland’, in which a hymn episodically bursts out as the cantus firmus in the chorus, in a way that recalls the ‘Himmel, reiße’ of the 1725 version. Greco’s animated voice was made for this aria; he really knows how to tell a story through song.

The registration on the continuo organ is changed by Anthony Abouhamad into something grander, to depict the temple being torn asunder. The frenzied passage on the cello, performed spectacularly by Anton Baba, is always a moment to behold.

But the highlight of the night was Lankshear’s performance in ‘Zerfleiße, mein Herz’. She has a remarkably light and delicate voice that has a tendency to waft above the audience, as though she is speaking on a higher plane. There was also a delightful accompaniment by Oberg on flute.

This masterpiece finished fittingly with a rousing rendition of the final chorale – ‘Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein’ – which represented the Choir at the height of its powers.

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