A Remarkable Concentrated Stillness

MIKE WHEELER reviews a restrained but purposeful account of J S Bach's St John Passion


Having performed J S Bach's St Matthew Passion last year, Derby Bach Choir and conductor Richard Roddis turned to his St John setting this time - Derby Cathedral, Derby UK, 23 March 2024. The restrained but purposeful account of the opening chorus summed up the main qualities of the performance as a whole.

The choir was incisive in the crowd scenes, menacing Peter with their muttered accusations of being one of the disciples, nimble as they drew lots for Jesus's cloak. The chorales had a lively sense of a communal response to events, the last one of all moving from a subdued opening to a confident conclusion.

Online publicity for Derby Bach Choir's 2024 St John Passion
Online publicity for Derby Bach Choir's 2024 St John Passion

As the Evangelist, Mark Dobell, standing in for an indisposed James Oxley, told the story simply, vividly where appropriate, and without undue histrionics. Matthew Brook's self-possessed Christus also conveyed a sense of anger, simmering but kept well under control. Soprano Zoë Brookshaw brought a bright eagerness to 'I follow thee gladly' - the work was sung in Neil Jenkins' English translation - navigating the treacherous chromatics with complete certainty, and aching grief to 'O heart, melt in weeping'. William Purefoy, Derby Bach Choir's counter-tenor of choice, was his usual expressive self, whether it was the agitation of 'From the bondage of iniquity', or calm plangency in 'it is fulfilled'.

Thomas Perkins projected the tenor arias with a clear, no-fuss sense of line, which accomodated the agitation of 'Behold him! See his body ...' and the lamentation of 'My heart, see how the world itself ...'. Christian Andreas' tetchy Pilate was a notable contribution to the trial scenes. He also brought focused tone to the bass arias - calm in 'Come ponder, O soul', swiftly moving in 'Haste, all ye whose souls are weary'. The remaining brief solos were taken by choir members.

Midlands Baroque Players made a solid contribution, firmly purposeful as an ensemble, including a vividly graphic depiction of the earthquake after Jesus' death, and contributing fluently eloquent obbligatos to the various arias, notably the flutes (Nikki Wolpowitz and Aimee Taylor) in 'I follow thee gladly', oboes (Phil Smith and Sami Smith) in 'My heart ...' and cello (Hetti Price) as the Evangelist described Jesus' scourging.

Poster for Derby Bach Choir's 2024 St John Passion
Poster for Derby Bach Choir's 2024 St John Passion

Above all, the work's dramatic shape was well sustained, culminating in a remarkable concentrated stillness in the climactic description of Jesus' death, a powerful moment that everyone in the building clearly experienced. It all underlined the fact that Bach's Passion settings can speak to everyone from a human perspective, religious faith or no.

Copyright © 6 April 2024 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK



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