ST. JOHN PASSION
Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
Friday April 14
After last year’s sterling performance of the St. Matthew Passion, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff elected this Easter to take his Bach singers and instrumentalists into the St. John score, using pretty much the same soloists as in 2016 (their ranks cut a tad because there’s less work to go round). With the orchestral and choral forces, I can’t comment on any continuity because the program for that event has gone the way of most print.
But the reading was comparable with its predecessor in general security and consistency. Prakhoff pointed out in a program note that he had no intention to present a total period interpretation, complete with gut strings, lute, and oboes di caccia ; rather, he utilised what he found practical in performance methodology and, if it sounded well-rounded or even orotund, the aim was to propose one way to interpret this moving work. Fair enough, I say; better to have a comfortable sound, even if it suggests 19th century practice, rather than witness players struggle with unreliable instruments or trebles jog-trotting through page after ornate page without a clue of what they’re doing.
The Bach Choir is a large body which packed quite a punch in this hall. After a suitably restless orchestral ritornello, the opening chorus’s Herr ejaculation came as an abrupt explosion; gripping in effect and setting up the operating ambience for the rest of the night with the instrumental fabric falling into the background, even in power-attenuating polyphonic complexes. But the sheer mass of singers acted as a kind of brake so that, even as early as the semiquaver-heavy unser Herrscher passage, the action was being pulled back; a traction that re-appeared later on in turba segments like Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen and Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater. Still, the chorales impressed uniformly, particularly the spot-on attack on the unprepared Part Two opening Christus , der uns selig macht. The only flaw in these singers’ work was the tentative sound produced by the tenors; for a body that can boast 20 of them, you’d expect a more resonant presence, particularly in fugato entries.
Prakhoff’s orchestra was fortunate in its bass elements, including a willing double bass pair and Matthew Angus’ bassoon. I couldn’t see much of the band’s interstices but gamba Laura Vaughan apparently offered her skills to the complex obbligato for Es ist vollbracht!; Jasper Ly and Nicole Misiurak alternated oboes with cor anglais for the da caccia appearances late in the score; flutes Jennifer Timmins and Alyse Faith made a clean sweep of Ich folge dir gleichfalls, leader Susan Pierotti led a safe string corps and generated a driving top line in the Betrachte/Erwage double.
If you had to typify this performance succinctly, you’d call it forthright. None of the soloists showed any sign of lingering over his/her work and the standard of production veered towards clear-cut definition with little space for sentiment or supple elisions. Once again, Warwick Fyfe sang the Christus role but with an adamantine firmness; this was no figure of pathos but an activist, speaking with directness to everyone from the apostles to Pilate. For those of us brought up on the tradition of Christ’s words being encased in a nimbus of sustained string chords, Fyfe’s interpretation represents a novel approach where the text’s drama is dominant and the impetus towards death is unabated.
Also continuing from 2016, Andrew Goodwin sang the Evangelist with, if possible, even more distinction. This tenor has a flawless delivery, projecting each note across his compass with an exemplary balance; not gabbling the lengthy slabs like Die Juden aber and the narrative-ending Darnach bat Pilatum but vaulting sensitively through the recitatives, maintaining the sense of John’s gospel, although prepared to give rein to the slow chromaticism of Peter’s weeping and that hurtling descending flight at the description of Christ’s scourging. Singing of this elating assurance is experienced rarely these days, and Goodwin struck a fine balance between empathy and simple story-telling; for most of us, I’d suggest, we felt privileged to be in the hall each time the tenor stood up.
Lorina Gore was among the revenants, gifted in this work with two arias only. Her sprightliness of delivery served well in Ich folge dir gleichfalls, interweaving to telling effect with the escorting flutes; later in the ornate Zerfliesse, mein Herze, the soprano’s craft shone through in her negotiation of the exquisitely figured vocal line and in a well-judged handling of breath control in some difficult legato passages.
Dominica Matthews sang the Passion’s alto arias; she did not feature among the preceding year’s soloists but put her own stamp on this work, handling her allotted arias with a firmness that mirrored her male colleagues. Her version of the pivotal Es ist vollbracht! proved excellent for its sense of forward motion, in tune with the general dynamic of this performance. Matthews made sure of offering maximum contrast when the pace quickened for the Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht pages, a riveting explosion of bravura in the middle of an elegy.
Henry Choo was indisposed by a back injury, which meant that he carried out his work but then retired backstage rather than sitting in front of us for the performance’s length. You could hear no signs of stress in his athletic Ach, mein Sinn, the top As in this aria’s central section punched out with a vigour that typified the tenor’s approach to these restless pages. And his energy remained constant in that exhausting Erwage aria which holds three of the entire work’s most continuous passages of rest-less singing; luckily, Choo has a bright, clarion-clear timbre that made following his line a rare pleasure.
Bass Jeremy Kleeman impressed in the St Matthew Passion and enjoyed similar success on Friday. While Part One held little content apart from some recitative contributions, he produced a pair of stalwart gems in the score’s second part where the soloist is interrupted/escorted by choral forces; first, with sopranos, altos and tenors in the scale-rich Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen handled here with deftly-controlled restlessness; then, in one of the work’s most consolatory sequences, the chorale Jesu, der du warest tot underpinning the lilting Mein teurer Heiland – a stretch of unabashed candour in this Passion’s high drama and a joy for any bass.
So yet again, the organization achieved a successful Good Friday commemoration, giving Bach’s formidable score a fine airing, crowned by a real sense of accomplishment with a fervent declamatory attack on the concluding Herr Jesu Christ, erhore mich, ich will dich preisen ewiglich! On which promise, the Bach Choir, Orchestra and soloists delivered handsomely.