8 April 2012

The centrality of the Easter message

St John Passion was our second JS Bach passion for the week. St John and St Matthew comprise all the extant Bach passions although he is reputed to have written five. Wikipedia compares them thus: “The St John Passion was described as more realistic, faster paced and more anguished than the reflective and resigned St Matthew Passion. The St John Passion is also shorter and has simpler orchestration than the St Matthew Passion”*. This verison of St John Passion is something again: this was the world premier performance of an English translation by ANU graduate Christopher Steele, who also performed the central role of Evangelist. I enjoyed that I could follow the words rather than read surtitles, although you have to accept some contorted language expressed in long rows of semiquavers in baroque style like: “You tor..men…ted spir...it”, or “Haste…to…Golgotha…””. It’s musically angular and protracted but that’s the baroque way and it’s immensely entertaining and aurally satisfying. Some lines were amusing, too. I thought “His clothes had been made very simply / from end to end without a seam” was curiously mundane for such a high theme, but maybe that’s part of the Christian story, too. We started well back in the Llewellyn Hall, but I found the ensemble was not imposing enough for this big space: the volume not intense enough; the impression not overwhleming enough; the words lost in distance. I moved to the third row for the second half and the words became clear, the echoed lines moved from right to left from basses to tenors to altos and sopranos, the renunciations of the choir when they chose Barabas became personal and the relegation of Pilate and the loss of Mary were close to hand. I expect it was like this in Bach’s church: a small ensemble in a reverberent, intimate space to ensconce the listener. But the playing and singing was wonderfully capable. I felt a tad uncomfortable with the instrumentals at the start (this is hot from the top so needs a generous warmup) and one other time (when Bach seemed more adventurous and had had my ears flumoxed), but otherwise the choir and performers were an absolute delight. The Passions are wonderful expressions of the loss of Good Friday and I can only sit back in awe at Bach’s creation and particularly in this case enjoy the imtimacy of the English text and admire the effectiveness of this performance. No need to be a believer to be entranced by music like this.

St John Passion was performed by The Oriana Chorale conducted by David Mackay, with soloists from the ANU School of Music and orchestra led by Barbara Jane Gilby. The translator, Christopher Steele, sang the main role of Evangelist.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passions_(Bach), viewed 7 April 2012

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