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April 2018

St John Passion

Suzanne Pinkerton

St Peter would indeed have been warming his hands, when accosted and asked if he were a disciple, on the icy night when a good audience turned out for this performance.

I had to do a quick little switch around in my brain.  During the afternoon I had listened to the Early Music Show featuring Bach's exact contemporary - they were born only 3 years apart - Rameau.  And only one border separated them - but what a contrast - Catholic France, where there was no tradition of settings of the Passions, but operas like Rameau's classic "Les Indes Galantes" with  wondrous stage effects, were wowing audiences - and Lutheran Germany (though of course not all of it was) with Bach, who never wrote an opera, producing these great dramatic versions of the Passion story for congregations to hear in church.  Both, indeed, wrote keyboard music, but their styles were different, and Rameau long outlived Bach!

So here we were, with a fascinating orchestra, including a curly oboe di caccia (hunting oboe) with its horn, a lute and viola da gamba - and may I proudly say no less than 3 RAM baroque students were to be found in the strings.  And I was delighted to see a harpsichord, my favourite musical instrument.  Seated at it was Peter Foggitt, our new Director of Music.  He certainly knows how to pick a band, and to keep it flowing, while often playing as well.

And now to the singing.  It is interesting, with singers, how you may get a family where different generations sing, or one where suddenly a voice appears, as it were, from nowhere. Ruari Bowen, the grandson of Kenneth Bowen, a tenor who had a distinguished career, was our evangelist.  He has a lovely voice, his German is excellent and he made us feel really involved in the story.

Malachy Frame (the RAM rides again!) was a grave and dignified Christus, and it was nice to have a younger singer in this role too.  Martin Oxenham, a stalwart of our Passions, was an incisive Pilate.  James Robinson,  becoming a familiar figure, sang one of the tenor arias for us, and of course Aidan Coburn was on hand, after some impressive work in Buxtehude in the morning service, to continue with more than one tenor piece

And we must not forget the ladies. Kathy Nicholson is leaving us to go full-time in the BBC Singers. I have heard her singing "Es ist vollbracht " ("It is finished") before, and it was a pleasure to hear how her warm voice has developed over the last couple of year.   Go with our good wishes, Kathy. "Ich folge" ("I follow") went to a soprano new to me, Rebecca Lee, with a nice sincere style. We also had a new mezzo who sang the first mezzo aria.  It's always nice to see who is around and hear new voices. Christine Buras showed what an experienced singer she is becoming in her aria.

Bach wrote some real gifts for ensembles in this Passion and you could go away with them pounding in the back of your head.  And, as is said in another context, Think on These Things.

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