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City Recital Hall, Sydney
April 7, 2017
The roiling strings and keening winds of the opening of Bach’s St John Passion drop the listener straight into the drama and pathos of Christ’s last days. While Passions (and Messiah’s) abound at this time of year, the smaller scale St John often gives way to the later written and more popular St Matthew passion – but it is no less powerful a piece of music.
Bolstered by choristers from Santa Sabina College and Shore, and accompanied by BachBand@StJames’ on period instruments, the Choir of St James’ provided a compelling argument for hearing this work more often in their City Recital Hall debut.
Director Warran Trevelyan-Jones led the work with an eye for detail, shaping the crescendos that propel the drama of the opening Herr, unser Herrscher to great effect, the choir singing with clarity and verve, exploiting the incredibly rich texture created by the combination of singers and period instruments. It was only when the choral texture dropped to single parts that there were any issues with balance.
The Choir of St James' and BachBand@StJames'. Photo © Nick Gilbert
The hardest working singer was, of course, the narrating Evangelist, sung by tenor Richard Butler, who also took the tenor arias. Butler’s sound was pleasantly bright in the carefully shaped phrases of the First Part, with plenty of detail and a countertenor-like delicacy on the higher notes. While he seemed to be straining in the upper register during the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn in the first half, he rallied in the second, delivering beautifully crafted phrases, loads of drama, and a polished sound across all registers. His Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken was a highlight of the evening.
Mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell’s Es ist vollbracht was moving, sung against the sparse texture of continuo and Shaun Ng’s burnished viola da gamba lines, though the balance was a little band-heavy in her earlier aria, obscuring some of the detail. Amy Moore brought a penetrating clarity to the soprano arias.
Andrew O’Connor brought his warm, all-encompassing bass to Pilate while bass-baritone Christopher Richardson delivered the bass arias with a robust athleticism. Philip Murray as Christ, Sébastien Maury as Peter and Owen Elsley as Servus all delivered fine performances.
The band – a new HIP group formed by Nicole Forsyth – was excellent, with highlights including the wonderfully weaving trio of two oboes and bassoon that introduced the first Alto aria and the veiled sound of the baroque flute duo that accompanied Moore’s Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten.
Overall, the Choir of St James’ delivered a fine outing of an underappreciated Passion. I look forward to hearing more from them and BachBand@StJames’.