Sprightly choir does justice to earlier Passion
JS BACH composed two Passions. The St John Passion was written three years before the highly regarded passion based on St Matthew's gospel.
The St Matthew Passion has proved so popular with professional and amateur choirs that, traditionally, it has held sway. But the balance now may be to be tilting slightly towards St John.
Perhaps this is to redress what might be perceived as some neglect. It might also be that the expressive immediacy of the earlier, more dramatic work, and that it is shorter, is felt to be more in tune with the times.
First performed in 1724, the St John Passion was subsequently revised more than once. Vocally, Bach scored for four-part choir (here, the Cheltenham Bach Choir) – and four soloists. In this performance, the soloists were increased to six.
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The instrumental forces are not modest. In addition to a body of strings, the original scoring required two flutes plus two players doubling on different members of the oboe family.
The strings included instruments now obsolete. Bach also wrote parts for organ and lute! Unfortunately, the layout of the abbey is such that most of the audience are unable to see the instrumentalists. The abbey acoustic did the Corelli Orchestra no favours – the sound of their period instruments was muffled and was indistinctly muddy at intricate passages. Being raised, the choir fared better.
Conductor Stephen Jackson was at pains to balance and clarify the unfolding contrapuntal lines and melismata. The choir were sprightly at characterising their various roles in the action. They produced a well-sustained tone in the reflective chorales
The soloists were beguiling. Samuel Boden was an assiduous and lucid Evangelist: the interjections of Christus (Stephen Parham-Connolly) were as rich as Simnel cake.