The one quality which distinguishes Bach’s St John Passion from the later St Matthew Passion is its sheer narrative power. Performances stand or fall on the ability of the performers to sustain the momentum and communicate the intensity of the drama in all its facets. The lynch-pin of any performance is the singer taking on the role of the Evangelist and here tenor Richard Edgar Wilson excelled. His perfect diction coupled with musical and dramatic sensitivity conveyed every nuance in his preferred translation, so much closer to Bach’s German text than the Ivor Atkins’ version confusingly printed in the programme. The sheer misery of Peter’s denial of Christ at ‘wept bitterly’ was but one of many intensely moving moments. In this and throughout he was ably supported by the continuo players, Danny Kingshill (cello) and Chris Harris (organ).
At the heart of this great work is the trial before Pilate. Bach makes huge demands on the chorus who take on the roles of the chief priests, the mob, and the soldiers. The Philharmonic chorus rose to the occasion magnificently, mustering ferocity from the mob and splendidly ironic ringing tones in the mocking of the soldiers. That said, initial consonants really needed more punch to cut through the chapel acoustic. The orchestra, confidently led by Susan Skone James, gave just the right bite to the sound in ‘The Lion of Judah fought the fight’.
Ed Ballard’s richly warm bass conveyed Christ’s words with true gravitas and sensitivity, giving a most moving performance. Samuel Queen’s Pilate was outstanding: his whole bearing and manner coupled with a superb voice exactly conveyed the politician’s authority and sense of exasperation.
The soloists’ arias demand virtuosic singing and are accompanied with intricate instrumental obbligati. Both Sofia Troncoso (mezzo-soprano) and Alice Roberts (soprano) sang beautifully though neither is ready yet to convey the emotional depths of this great music. Richard Edgar Wilson took on the tenor arias as well as his role as Evangelist – a true tour de force. All were well supported by the instrumental obbligati players.
However, the true honours of the evening must go to conductor Robin Morrish, in this, his last Chapel performance as the Society’s conductor. His energy and drive inspired the chorus, orchestra and soloists alike, while his handling of the chorales was masterly. Every word and line and dynamic detail had been thought through, with each phrase given its true emotional significance. Thus we were led unerringly through profoundly felt moments of hushed pianissimo singing to the blazing conviction of the glorious concluding chorale.