The Melbourne Bach Choir: St John Passion

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Published: 19th April, 2017

As a musical expression of religious devotion on Good Friday Bach’s St John Passion would have to be an ideal choice. Thanks to the Melbourne Bach Choir, the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was fully booked long before the performance by an audience keen to mark this significant occasion. Even atheists, agnostics and the lapsed were seeking to find spiritual sustenance in what Martin Luther called a meditation on God’s sufferings that “changes a person’s character”.

This performance St John Passion and another presented at St John’s Malvern less than a month ago might have been different in many ways but they shared a deep respect for a work that is a cornerstone of Western sacred music and attracted bigger audiences than their respective venues could comfortably hold. The stated aim of The Melbourne Bach Choir: “to give singers and audiences alike the opportunity to experience live choral music” presents founding Musical Director and Conductor Rick Prakhoff with a number of challenges.

As is the case with many large choirs there is an over-abundance of female voices that in turn leads to a lack of balance between the parts. Even with the acoustic blinds of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall fully lowered (a wise choice) there was some general blurring of the sound and the sopranos tended to dominate. Nevertheless, at some key moments, especially the fugal passages, the four voices became more distinct with the men making a greater impact. Crisp energy in the denunciation scenes was a prime example of this. There might have been more precision and nuance from a smaller choral body of elite singers but there is something to be said for a performance of such a work by a large band of capable choristers who have been trained well. Not only do they make an impressive full-bodied sound, the listener can perhaps more readily identify with them and what they are expressing.

Apart from the venue and composition of the choir, MBC used modern instruments performing at modern pitch. This may have put a little extra strain on the upper voices but certainly provided better balance between the orchestra and the choir at some of the more dramatic choral moments. Bach makes much more sparing use of his instrumental forces for the solos and there were some exceptions to the modern instruments option. Laura Vaughan’s viola da gamba provided a soulful obbligato, thereby adding to the pathos of Dominica Matthews’ alto solo “Es ist vollbracht” (It is fulfilled). Substituting for the lute, a harpsichord also added to the Baroque flavor as a continuo instrument.

 St John Passion is commonly remarked upon for its dramatic content and Prakhoff’s choice of soloists usually associated with opera was well judged in two respects. Firstly, all were markedly expressive and, secondly, there was no hint of overblown operatic vocal production; Matthews in particular made sparing use of vibrato. Lorina Gore used her shining resonance to deliver the two demanding soprano solos with graceful clarity, giving a most affecting account of “Zerfließe, mein Herze” (Dissolve my heart) with its lovely flute and oboe da caccia obbligati. Jasper Ly appears to be the oboist of choice for many local chamber ensembles, contributing his very beautiful tone and fine musicality to everything he undertakes. He also combined with the flute to underpin the emotional drama of the preceding tenor arioso. Henry Choo was in such good voice and sang with so much spirit that it was difficult to believe he was suffering from a severe back injury sustained the previous day. Making little reference to his score, Choo was completely absorbed in the music and spun out the long lines of the aria “Erwäge” (Ponder well) with a rare degree of control and glowing involvement.

As Jesus, Warwick Fyfe was gravely authoritative when confronting the persecutors and tempered his vibrant baritone to give an intensely emotional colouring to the binding of Mary and John as mother and son and to Jesus’ dying words. Jeremy Kleeman was a convincing Pontius Pilate and sang the bass baritone arias strongly and with pleasing tone. It seemed a pity, however, that the MBC Scholars, either past or present, did not undertake the smaller male and female solo parts. This is something to look forward to in the future.

Many Melbournians, myself included, first heard Andrew Goodwin when he sang the part of the Evangelist for the MBC’s St Matthew Passion a number of years ago to great acclaim. Since then, he has added to this success with a number of recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and can add this latest performance to his significant achievements. But even within this uniformly impressive and committed performance there were a couple of moments that caught the breath, such as when Peter “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly) after the cock crew. The modern pitch appeared to present no difficulties for him and he managed the lower notes of the entombment, which can be problematic for some Evangelists, with properly voiced, carrying tone.

Whilst Goodwin may have received the lion’s share of the applause, the choir itself was, quite rightly, enthusiastically acknowledged for their sterling efforts as were the chamber orchestra, under the very capable leadership of Susan Pierotti, and the excellent line-up of soloists.

Emerging into the dying autumnal light, there was a feeling of deep satisfaction at having spent part of Good Friday with such a worthy realization of Johann Sebastian’s great re-creation of Christ’s Passion. And we might even have been changed for the better.

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Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Bach Choir’s performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 14, 2017.