A dramatic and sharply-focused St.John Passion from Nota Bene and the Chiesa Ensemble at St Mary of the Angels

JS BACH – St.John Passion BWV 245
Presented by Nota Bene Choir and the Chiesa Ensemble
Directed by Peter Walls

Evangelist – Lachlan Craig / Christ – Simon Christie
Soprano – Nicola Holt / Alto –  Maaike Christie-Beekman
Tenor –  LJ Crichton / Bass: William King
Pilate – Chris Whelan / Servant – Patrick Geddes
Ancilla – Katie Chalmers / Peter – Peter McClymont

Nota Bene Choir (Peter Walls – Music director)
The Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers – leader)

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 14th April, 2019

Of four Scriptural “Passion” settings associated in some way or another with Johann Sebastian Bach, two have been fully “authenticated”, the larger St.Matthew Passion, and the smaller, more intense and visceral St.John Passion – while two others, settings of the other evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ death, are either spurious or recyclings of lost material. Bach undertook the St.John Passion during his first year as director of church music in Leipzig, and the work was first performed in 1724, though not in St Thomas’s Church where Bach was stationed, but in the St Nicholas Church, it being customary to alternate such services yearly between the two principal Leipzig churches. Bach’s predesessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhlau, had directed his own St.Mark Passion at St.Thomas’s Church three years before, in 1721, setting in motion a “Leipzig tradition” of presenting such works.

Bach himself heard his work only four times, on various Good Fridays during his tenure as “Thomaskantor” at Leipzig, and, like a good baroque composer, continued to make additions and revisions to the work right up to the last performance he directed, in 1749 – scholarly opinion is that the first (1724) and last “versions” have the closest relationship to one another of the four. The way these presentations were written was to incorporate a sermon in the action as the “high point” of the Good Friday service – though any preacher of the time would have probably viewed his place amid such a magnificent musical framework as Bach provided with mixed feelings – inspiration aplenty, but with awe and even misgiving in the face of such heartfelt, all-pervading expression!

The St.John retelling of Christ’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death is shorter, sharper and more brutally told than in the longer, more reflective St.Matthew Passion, (which was written three years afterwards). The earlier work begins more dramatically, too, with the opening chorus bursting in amid piteous instrumental lamentations, calling on God to display his might and glory throughout his suffering and humiliation, before the action hurries towards the scene of Jesus’ betrayal and Peter’s denial of his Master. It’s all vividly characterised, the crowd a howling mob baying for blood, and the Roman Governor, Pilate, vividly prevailed upon by the high priests and the mob to condemn him to death – the interactions between personalities and groups give off surges of energy with the only respite being the occasional aria or chorus, all the more affecting for their quiet wisdom and reflective beauties and sorrows.

In performances of works such as this, I’m always struck by their sense of  “inclusiveness”, brought about through the use of a great range of voices to bring the story to theatrical and dramatic life, as if almost anybody could have been randomly “caught up” in these events of that time. In fact I’m often reminded of numerous Good Friday services of my childhood, during which the Passion story was enacted in spoken form by various clergy and congregation members of the church I attended, all of whom I knew in their “ordinary, everyday” guises, but who were, for those brief sequences, using those familiar voices and gestures to convey something of the essence of these so very archetypal characters in the story – followers, officials, soldiers and onlookers, all indelibly touched by their involvement, however involuntary or otherwise, in these great events.

Each of the voices in this presentation, though varied in tone, timbre, weight and colour, was strongly united in the purpose and direction of conveying the story – and, as we in the audience/congregation were as children listening to an absorbing tale, giving us a sense of their total involvement essential to the task. How important, therefore, were those singers who took the “lessser” roles in Part One, the bystanders and onlookers who were suddenly “drawn in” to the drama, taking each of us with them – Katie Chalmers and Patrick Geddes as servants in the garden where Jesus was betrayed, commenting on Jesus’s disciple Peter’s association with his master, and Peter McClymont as the unfortunate Peter refuting their comments, their voices striking the right note of righteous speculation and subsequent rebuttal, an almost “social-media-like” interaction as an impulse in the drama.

Even more significant and engaging was the contribution of Chris Whelan’s Pilate, throughout Part Two,  the voice strong and sufficiently authoritative, but most importantly conveying the Roman governor’s ambivalence regarding any judgement he felt compelled to make regarding Jesus’ fate, while struggling to maintain what dignity he could – his final rebuff to the Jewish priests of  “Was ich geschrieben habe….” (What I have written, I have written) regarding the “insignia” on the cross above Jesus’s head, effectively silencing further protest.

As for Simon Christie’s authoritative and sonorous Jesus, one felt  from the singer’s very first notes an overwhelming sense of identification with the character’s enormous burden of responsibility, the “sins of the world” as exemplified by the hostility and inhumanity of most of those around him throughout these sequences. His voice was an excellent “foil” for that of the Evangelist’s in this performance, Lachlan Craig, whose spare, lithe tones I found took a little getting used to, but whose ability to vary his instrument’s qualities in the services of the narrative soon won me over. Whatever the mood or mode, his delivery, be it biting and cutting when characterising the crowd scenes, piteous and emotion-laden in conveying the anguish of Simon Peter in the wake of the latter’s betrayal of Jesus, or tender when describing the ministrations of both Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene, was equal to the task of bringing to us the essence of whatever “moment” was paramount.

Each of the four singers impressed with their heartfelt identifications relating to the varying moods of their solo sequences. Nicola Holt’s radiant soprano voice created a veritable halo of sound which seemed to me to fill the church’s precincts in glorious fashion, the occasional moment of strain incorporated wholeheartedly in the sound’s tapestry of emotion in heartfelt style – her bright, eager, “Ich folge dir” (I follow thee) exemplified her intense commitment to the words and sense of the music’s burning zeal. Tenor L.J.Crichton used his brightly-focused voice to fearless effect in “Ach mein Sinn” (Ah, my Soul) despite touches of strain in places, singing intelligently and tackling the difficulties with great credit – his later ” Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his bloodstained back) was more easily and mellifluously essayed, giving notice of the inherent beauty in his tones, and his further potentialities as a performer.

Alto Maaike Christie-Beekman instantly drew us into a world of expressive pity with her “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins), her focus riveting, and her tones rich and engaging throughout, the singer’s gift for characterisation coming into its own in the later “Es ist vollbracht!” where her deeply moving tones of resignation were suddenly tossed to one side in a frisson of jubilation at the words “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht” (The Hero from Judah triumphs), before returning to the meditative opening – a great moment! Just as potent and moving in expressiveness was the singing of William King, whose lovely arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel”  (Consider, my Soul) was put across with such sweet and mellifluous dignity, and whose dramatic, haunted rendition of  “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tormented souls) with the chorus providing thrilling, split-second support, was a highlight of the performance. I liked, too, another “bass and chorus” item, the lullabic (though here a shade too quick for my tastes) “Mein teurer Heiland”, remarkable nevertheless in its expressive power.

That I’ve left the chorus, orchestra and music director Peter Walls to last and all together means that the credit for providing the performance’s tightly-knit and securely-delivered sense of ensemble and finely-judged expressive power can be equally and justly shared. St. John‘s palpable urgency and emotional directness depends upon the singers’ and players’ ability to “give” with focus and precision, and the result when achieved, as here, is sharply moving, both in situ and in the work’s aftermath. The chorus encompassed the work’s incredible range of feeling with total assurance, its depth of sorrow, its anger, its biting fury, its resigned pathos and its moments of beauteous lyricism – and much the same could be said for the work of the instrumentalists and the Chiesa Ensemble, both in the sum of their individual continuo contributions and the band’s whole, sonorous “presence”.

Conductor Peter Walls enabled what seemed to me a stunningly unified presentation which never faltered – I did think a  couple of tempi might have been “driven” somewhat less relentlessly (the very opening, for example), but it was all in line with a conception that enabled the work to speak volumes regarding aspects of humanity and transcendence of everyday existence. It all made for a deeply moving experience to which it seemed all who took part unreservedly participated and all who were present deeply appreciated.

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