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St John Passion

by Heather Leviston

Just as Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Messiah or ten, so Easter calls for at least one major work by the great Johann Sebastian. This Easter sees two performances from prominent Melbourne choirs favouring Bach’s St John Passion. First off the mark, the Choir of Christ Church South Yarra and the Choral Scholars of St John’s East Malvern combined forces to present a stirring account of Bach’s more operatic rendering of the Passion, appropriately enough, in St John’s East Malvern.

A church of moderate size and great charm, St John’s is a popular venue for concerts. Despite the lack of air-conditioning (Father John Baldock welcomed any contributions to same in his warm welcome) members of the large audience over-flowing the pews were happy to enjoy the lovely ambiance and listen to a performance that would have been appreciated in much less comfortable circumstances. An important aspect of his address was to ask the audience to restrict applause to the entrance of the performers and merely stand at the end – not an easy task as it turned out.

As the opening notes of “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord our Redeemer) rang out, it was clear that this enthusiastic 30-strong choir boasted some exceptionally strong voices and had been trained to sing with precision and an emphasis on dynamic shading. Although the sopranos tended to dominate, their voices were well blended – a strength of all sections of the choir. There was plenty of drama invested in the trial scene with its insistence on “Kreuzige!” (Crucify him!) – no meek and mild choristers in evidence at that point, nor as lots were cast for Christ’s coat. The final chorus “Ruht wohl” (Lie in peace) was sung with full tone and unflagging energy. The Chorale that concluded the Passion provided a further example of the disciplined concord inspired by conductor Michael Fulcher and of great commitment to the spirit of the music on the part of all performers.

In keeping with the practice of Bach’s time, some soloists were drawn from the choir. Jordie Howell sang the first soprano solo with strong resonance while Kristy Biber brought considerable sensitivity and a lovely tone to the second soprano solo. Although there was some fading at the end of phrases, Elizabeth Chong gave a capable account of the alto solos, with firm, natural lower notes and an even tone. Bass Michael Strasser was a sturdy Pilate and Peter.

The all-important part of the Evangelist requires an exceptional tenor and Paul McMahon filled the bill admirably. His easy production, consistently attractive tone and expressive delivery were a constant pleasure. The lower, A415 Baroque pitch occasionally posed difficulties, particularly towards the end during descriptions of Christ’s death and burial, but this was a minor concern within the context of such a deeply satisfying performance.

Timothy Reynolds sang the tenor arias with fine clarity, making an excellent job of the more florid passages. Michael Leighton Jones’ flowing baritone was impressive in the wonderful bass arias interwoven with contributions from the chorus. As Jesus, Timothy Newton used his outstanding bass voice to good effect, although a more relaxed approach may have provided greater expressiveness.

The Melbourne Baroque Orchestra as a whole played with spirit and there was excellent work from the continuo players. The oboe and oboe da caccia were especially lovely in the alto solos with Laura Vaughan’s viola da gamba providing a beautiful accompaniment for the second of these.

Doubtless the coming performance by the Melbourne Bach Choir at the Melbourne Recital Centre will have great merit, but as the sun shone directly through the stained-glass windows behind the performers, St John’s seemed the perfect setting for this sublime work.

 

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