March 2007: Bach St John Passion

Bach: St John Passion

Exeter Cathedral, 29 March 2007

In his St John Passion, Bach brings to dramatic musical life the St John Gospel account of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. This hugely powerful work conveys the story of Jesus’ betrayal and suffering at the hands of both the authorities and the crowd with startling immediacy, so much so, that it was received with distrust and opposition upon its first performance on Good Friday, 1724, as being more befitting an opera house than a divine service. Our semi- staged performance of this great work will underscore the drama of the Passiontide events.

Exeter Express and Echo, 6 April 2007

Source: Margaret Smith

"It was such a good idea to semi-stage Bach's work, The St. John Passion, in the Cathedral; it was an idea that worked well and provided an exhilarating performance by Exeter Festival Chorus conducted by Nigel Perrin.

Neil Jenkins, who sang the tenor role of The Evangelist, and whose voice is so expressive and easy on the ear, had provided a new English version of the oratorio, designed, as he tells us, to allow singers to perform in contemporary English without compromising the musical integrity of the piece. The opening and closing choruses, chorales and arias were all sung in the original German.

Taken at a good pace, there was a biting sense of drama throughout. The opening chorus was full of pain and anguish, as was the Crucifixion.

The soloists, who sang with clear-toned precision, were James Ottaway, Gavin Carr, Sean Clayton, Penelope Davies and Leah Jackson, with Andrew Millington, organ continuo. The role of the baroque orchestra known as "Music for a While" forged some real partnerships with the vocal soloists. Perhaps performance is not the right word to use about this evening, because it felt like an act of worship."

Review in Woodbury Music Society Newsletter for April 2007

Source: Deryck Laming

"The fine performance of Bach’s St John Passion by the Exeter Festival Chorus in the Cathedral, 29 March, marked a new level of performance as it was semi-staged, meaning that it stood perfectly between a concert version and a theatrical performance: borrowing from both, but hampered by neither.

Under the direction of Nigel Perrin, a large choir were told to memorise their music and sing without notes, so that their stage movement would be realistic. This consisted of general animation of the crowd, angry head-jerking and finger-wagging in the scene outside the temple, quiet and soulful as the crucifixion proceeded with Christus (James Ottaway) being led to a large cross and made to wear a crown of thorns and a robe. Linking the action was the bearded and expressive Evangelist (Neil Jenkins), who toured the stage and pointed or waved to show what was happening. Being semi-staged also meant that when St Peter struck at the servant as with a sword, there was no sword, and neither did the servant’s ear get cut off. The scene where Peter denied our Lord three times, and realised what he had done when the cock crowed, was especially poignant. The chorales, many of then well-known as Easter music, were all sung in German, but most of the Passion was in English and it was easy to follow the action with or with- out the help of a programme. Accompanying the chorus on period instruments was Music for Awhile.

Future Bach Passions will find it hard to compete with this magnificent performance."

Report by the Making Music South West Area Representative

Source: Carole Hossell

The following are extracts from Carole Hossell’s report on the Exeter Festival Chorus’s performance of Bach’s St John Passion on 29 March 2007:

Overall comments on the choir’s performance: "Well balanced. Excellent rapport with conductor. 'Let us not divide it' was strikingly effective. 'Sleep well' was also one of the Choir’s highlights. Singing without the music was most impressive."

On the orchestra (Music for Awhile):
"Very good and giving proper support. Most enjoyable, and accompanying, rather than drowning out the voices."

On the soloists:
All soloists very impressive. …. James Ottaway was a wonderful Christus. Neil Jenkins superb as Evangelist. Pilate also excellent. Sean Clayton has a delightful voice."

On the conductor:
"Nigel Perrin as always working closely with choir, soloists, orchestra and organ."

In summary:
"A work not often heard and quite demanding for the choir, especially in the crowd scenes where they had to learn the words by heart. But it was worth the effort, because that, coupled with the constant movement in the crowd and the lighting effects, gave a very exciting performance. ……… Congratulations to everyone for an enjoyable and exciting concert!"