Bach – St John Passion

Time stood still for a couple of hours in St Augustine’s Chapel just a week before Good Friday, the day for which Bach composed his Passion according to St John – a form of job interview the like of which surely has never been seen before or since.

We, the soundbite generation, take for granted easy and immediate access to music in all its forms today. To attend a complete two-hour-plus performance of such a work – yes, including unforgiving pews seating! – takes one into a different dimension of thought and experience, drama and serenity. Thought about the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, drama of the betrayal and subsequent crucifixion, and serene reflection as the drama unfolds in the form of aria, arioso, chorus and chorale, all brought to us through the genius of J S Bach, filtered through two and a half centuries of human experience. How surprised old JSB would be to know that people were hearing, in a different society and age, the music he wrote only to be heard once!

For this listener the evening provided four indelible memories. One, what a fine choir the Tonbridge Philharmonic is. From the first bars of the beautiful little 16th century motet by Felice Anerio that made an entirely apt preface to the Bach, there was present a balance of sonority and weight of choral tone that was satisfying in the extreme at all dynamic levels, coupled with a unanimity of attack and a flexibility of phrasing that speaks volumes about the training of its chorus master. The big nineteenth century choral works make their effect in broad brushstrokes. The real basic qualities of a chorus in terms of balance, diction and phrasing are shown in the four-part choral content of a work such as this.

The second recollection is that of the superbly balanced and contrasting voices of the soloists – six of them, plus two short contributions from members of the chorus. Bach’s St John Passion is not a work of ensembles, trios, quartets and the like. No, if ever there was one, this is a work where teamwork predominates, and a match of voices is important for colour and contrast.

The third memory is of the excellence of the continuo players whose contribution was near continuous, and the obbligato soloists, as well as the orchestra led unostentatiously, as always, by Penelope Howard.

Fourthly, the wise guidance and direction of Robin Morrish, presiding over the unfolding drama, keeping it moving where necessary and allowing a magical silence to play its part from time to time – a silence that drew the audience in and allowed no pins to drop in case they should be heard.

In this team performance, certain things need to be acknowledged. Richard Edgar-Wilson’s Evangelist narrated the story with conviction, colouring his voice and its dynamics without ever becoming repetitive. Jon English delivered the agonised aria after Peter’s denial in ringing stentorian tones, yet a little later sang the long demanding tenor aria ‘Behold him! See!’ with exceptional tenderness and accuracy of note value and pitch – a highlight.

Simon Deller’s soft-grained bass made a totally convincing Jesus, emphatic where necessary, meek where appropriate. The difficult role of Pilate was admirably filled by Toby Barrett, his repeated ‘I find no fault in him’ clearly delivered without exaggeration, making the poignancy of the drama more intense. The gentle brightness of Bibi Heel’s soprano contrasted well with the warmth of Susan Legg’s alto, their comment arias beautifully sung – and let us not forget those two un-named bit part players from the chorus, all fulfilled their roles admirably. One of the remarkable aspects of this performance was hearing the various participating voices coming from different points in space, emphasising the dramatic events taking place.

The choir, frankly, covered themselves with glory from the opening agonised chorus, through the rabble-rousing of the crucifixion, to the final ‘Lie still, lie still, O sacred limbs’. Robin Morrish’s direction of the chorales, forthright, mezzoforte and without exaggeration – they are hymns after all – made of this an uplifting and emotionally charged experience, very necessary from time to time in this day and age. Last, but by no means least, the provision of a forty-page programme book containing words, section headings deserves mention – a major enhancement of the audience’s enjoyment. The thanks of all those present go out to all concerned with this timely event.

David Inman