Saint John Passion from the Orpheus Choir


J. S. Bach – Saint John Passion

The Orpheus Choir, the Choir of the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Vector Wellington Orchestra, Douglas Mews (organ), Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Nicola Edgecombe (soprano), Ellen Barrett (alto), Gregory Massingham (tenor) – Evangelist, Hadleigh Adams (bass) – Pilate, Daniel O’Connor (baritone) – Jesus

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Sunday 29th March

The Wellington Cathedral of St Paul is, by capital city standards, an imposing structure from the outside and an awe-inspiring space from within. Often its voluminous spaces are used for music performances, of which I’ve seen and heard a number in recent times, nearly all splendidly uplifting affairs. My listening experiences in the building tended to confirm what one would think of the cathedral’s acoustic by viewing these vast spaces – it’s an area which adds considerable bloom and resonance to whatever sounds singers or players make, which means that for some music it enhances the listening experience immeasurably.

For a lot of music composed for performance in ecclesiastical spaces that agglomerated tonal effect is built into the writing, so that any resonance or even echo gives added value to what the performers are producing. A crucial factor for the listener at a concert in such a space is his or her proximity to the performers, which has a marked effect on what that listener hears – if reasonably close to the performer or performers the listener is able to hear a good deal of sound directly from its source, however much the acoustic might then add to the sound in the way of resonance and colour

When preparing to go with a friend to hear the Orpheus Choir’s performance of Bach’s St.John Passion with the Vector Wellington Orchestra, late on the afternoon of March 29th of this year, I failed to take into account the choir’s following among concertgoers and the interest generated in Bach’s great choral masterpieces by a number of splendid performances of them over recent years here in Wellington. Consequently, when we arrived at the Cathedral we were greeted by vast queues of people on the steps in front of the church; and when we were able to get into the building there were a few seats left in the very back row, which we were grateful to get. The Orpheus Choir organisers must have been gratified by such a splendid turnout, because every available seat seemed to be filled, and the church was bristling with the most pleasant sort of expectation (fuelled by the delay in starting while seats were found for everybody).

People reading this review might well be asking themselves what all of this has got to do with a performance of the St John Passion, one of three Passions written by Bach, and of the three the most dramatic, theatrical and involving in an overtly emotional way. That, too, has a bearing on the review below, the reason being that, from where I was sitting I found different parts of the work affected in different ways by the acoustic of the building and the vast distance between myself and the singers and instrumentalists.

The dramatic nature of the work meant that some of the music was quick-moving in rhythm and theatrical in expression, and it was in those parts of the score that I found the most difficulty in closely following what was going on. The more reflective episodes, such as the choruses and chorales and some of the recitatives I could follow. But when things got “lively” the acoustic joined in and made it all twice as lively. There were no seats to be had closer to the front, so I had no choice but to stay where I was and make sense of what I could from my own perspective.

From what I could make out, the choirs (the Cathedral Choir and the Orpheus Choir) along with the Wellington Orchestra seemed to be revelling in Michael Fulcher’s forthright direction. At the very opening the wind lines sang upwards and outwards, while the strings, with tones far less penetrating, took on a kind of feathery ambience up high and a throbbing engine-room-like insistence down below. The choral entries were stunning on single notes, the cries of “Herr!” in that opening chorus resounding through the building, though the succeeding vocal polyphony then proceeded to envelop itself in a cornucopia of tones, from which a line would occasionally extrude before being overtaken by its own resonance and brought back into the latticework again. It was obviously going to be a performance that would give us ‘back-seat’ listeners plenty of atmosphere, sweep and colour, rather than a lot of fine detail.

The two choirs divided the work, the Cathedral choristers sometimes taking the chorales alone and sharing others, while the Orpheus Choir took the choruses and the crowd participations in the story. In the slower chorales the effect of the Cathedral’s spaces on the beautiful singing was near-celestial, the Chorale immediately beginning the Second Part Christus, der uns selig macht (Christ who brings us joy) being particularly lovely. And, despite the acoustic, the bite of the dramatic exchanges between the crowd and Pilate still came across – the Orpheus’s attack with Wir haben keine König denn den Kaiser (We have no King but Caesar) was scalp-prickling, following on from the contrast of the Chorale Durch deine Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn(Your imprisonment, Son of God) with the savagery of Lässest du diesen los (If you let this man go). No wonder Bach was criticised by some of his contemporaries for presenting “opera in church”!

Among the soloists, soprano Nicola Edgecombe made a consistently attractive and positive impression, bringing to her first aria Ich folge dir (I follow you) a bright, eager, winning quality, and a nice sense of working with the wind accompaniments, surviving Bach’s brutal chromatic ascents with sufficient poise to emerge with credit. Her aria in Part Two Zerfliesse, mein Herze (Dissolve, my heart) with a moving Dein Jesus ist tot! (Your Jesus is dead) complete with trill, similarly impressed with lovely sustained notes and elegantly negotiated turns throughout. Alto Ellen Barrett exhibited an attractive tone quality and flowing aspect to her passagework, in her opening Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (From the bonds of my sin) though her note-pitching faltered in a couple of places. And although she didn’t have quite the vocal heft to make Der Held aus Juda (The Hero from Judah) truly triumphant in her second aria, the first part Es est vollbrach! (It is accomplished!) caught the lament-aspect nicely with focused, heartfelt tones.

Both Daniel O’Connor as Jesus and Hadleigh Adams as Pilate delivered their recitatives with sonorous voices and dramatic power, their confrontation during Part Two generating plenty of tension and interest, as did their interaction with the chorus/crowd baying for Jesus’ blood. Hadleigh Adams created a touching tenderness in each of his arias, the first following Jesus’ flogging Betrachte, meine Seel (Think, my soul) and the second Mein teurer Heiland (My dearest Saviour) immediately after his death, intertwining his vocal lines with those of the choir singing the chorale Jesu, der warest tot (Jesus, you were dead) and, despite some occasional strain on his high notes, producing an effect indescribably moving.

Evangelist Gregory Massingham showed his obvious experience in singing the role, creating a great sense of story, and keeping the dramatic momentum moving at all times, though he displayed moments of somewhat distressing vocal fallibility in places, his tone and sense of pitch often faltering when the lines took his voice anywhere above the stave. As if singing the part of the Evangelist wasn’t taxing enough he unwisely took on the tenor arias as well, which were simply too much for his vocal resources on the day. Had somebody else been engaged to do these, he might have coped better with the Evangelist’s music at stressful points, though his delineation of both Peter’s crying bitterly and Jesus’ flogging were both distressingly approximate realisations. A great pity, because much of his Evangelist’s work was more than perfectly decent – and to his credit he kept on, even when things seemed about to fall apart in the tenor arias, which were the performance’s least comfortable moments.

Whatever conductor Michael Fulcher might have felt about his tenor soloist’s vocal troubles he kept both orchestra and choruses focused on the task throughout, getting singing and playing from his massed forces that carried the day, the final choruses appropriately having the last say, with a beautifully rapt Ruht wohl (Rest well) and a majestic, sonorous and valedictory Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein (Oh Lord, send me your angels), sending us away from that massive church with the sounds of eternity ringing in our ears.

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