March 2013: St John Passion in Exeter

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 23 March 2013

Source:  Julian Sutton

Where better on the eve of Holy Week than Exeter Cathedral for this performance of James Macmillan’s St John Passion?  Written in 2007, this music is fierce, tense and violent but interspersed with hauntingly lyrical passages reflecting Macmillan’s enthusiasm for the timeless quality of Gregorian chant and for the drama of the operatic stage.

Macmillan, born in 1959, is a Scottish Catholic composer and this is a Catholic Passion, combining words from St. John’s Gospel with Latin and Greek texts, as well as some of MacMillan’s own words. The work, in two parts, consists of 10 separate movements, with the final movement being an orchestral meditation on the words Holy Immortal, Have mercy upon us.

In this performance the narrative role was sung by the excellent youthful voices of the Wellensian Consort, who conveyed the text in an appropriately restrained and unemotional manner. Whether chanting in octaves, thirds or mildly discordant four-part harmony every word could clearly be heard and their ensemble was generally impressive.

Christus (sung from the pulpit by the baritone Mark Stone) was commanding both in tone and presence.  He immediately stamped his authority on the performance and in The Reproaches, the musical and emotional climax of the work, he demonstrated a vocal range of almost two octaves as well as enormous stamina in negotiating the long, high melismatic passages.

The combined Exeter Festival Chorus and the City of Bath Bach Choir formed the 8-part Large Chorus, which took on the other main characterisation roles such as Pilate, Peter and the gossipy and vengeful crowd. The chorus dealt admirably with the wide dynamic ranges, the intricate and complex rhythms, the harsh discordant lines and the close imitation demanded by the piece. Intonation was impressive in some of the long unaccompanied sections and their affirmative cry of Tu es Petrus, after Peter’s denial, was one of many dramatic highlights.

A wide range of orchestral timbres was drawn from the superb Southern Sinfonia, with many players being called upon to play exposed and technically demanding solo passages.

Enormous credit must go to Nigel Perrin for preparing all of the musical forces so thoroughly and for guiding the performers through this incredibly demanding piece with such clarity of direction. This was a dramatic and sincere performance. A real triumph!