Nottingham Cathedral Choir
March 7 2020
Review: William Ruff
A St John Passion that quickened the pulse and gripped the imagination
Bach never wrote an opera but in his St John Passion he wrote a piece so full of tense drama that it outdoes many operas in its arresting immediacy. Nottingham Cathedral’s performance on Saturday quickened the pulse and gripped the imagination throughout its two-hour, unbroken span.
The opening almost said it all. The pleas for mercy stabbed and startled, the orchestral accompaniment relentless, the bass line like angry, storm-driven waves. It all sounded so modern, like the soundtrack to news coverage of a global disaster. Period instruments and laser-guided choral singing gave the drama extra bite.
The Cathedral Choir had many roles to perform and were convincing in each: tenderly reflective in the chorales and bursting with vindictive energy when transformed into the crowd baying for Christ’s blood. Bach notoriously doesn’t make life easy for his singers so the choir’s precision of tuning and timing were impressively consistent right though to the spiritual intensity of the devotional ending.
They were matched by incisive playing from the Musical and Amicable Society Baroque Orchestra whose sense of tonal colour and texture enhanced the intensity of the narrative.
Indeed story-telling was always the main priority: its graphic immediacy, its cast of sharply contrasted characters and the extremes of emotion it generates – from horror to elation. Conductor Alex Patterson maintained a strong sense of momentum and deftly managed the forces under his direction. The soloists inhabited their roles with conviction and it was good to see their engagement with the audience as well as hear it. Here was singing with eyes as well as throats.
Harry Jacques was an immersive Evangelist, attentive to every nuance of every word and with a purity of tone to match. Ellie Martin and Eleanor Minney, the soprano and mezzo soloists provided intense meditations on the spiritual meaning of the story unfolding before us. James Williams was a strong, noble Christus with René Bloice-Sanders authoritative as the troubled, reluctant and complex Pilatus. Tenor James Beddoe combined operatic ardour with rapier-like accuracy.
Alex Patterson’s pacing of the narrative ensured that contrasts were strong, characterisation vivid and imaginative involvement unflagging. The confrontation between Christ and Pilate was particularly vivid, as were increasingly frequent meditations towards the end of the Passion which put the narrative on pause, culminating in Ellie Martin’s tender, jewel-like ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’.
Two hours of complex music, no interval, hard church pews: not an obvious recipe for enjoyment. But on Saturday in Nottingham Bach’s great drama transcended time and place.
Harry Jacques, Evangelist
James Williams, Christus
René Bloice-Sanders, Pilatus
Ellie Martin, Soprano
Eleanor Minney, Mezzo-Soprano
James Beddoe, Tenor
Annie Dersy, Ancilla
James Farmer, Petrus
Nicholas Ong, Servus
Nottingham Cathedral Choir
Musical and Amicable Society Baroque Orchestra
Directed by Alex Patterson