The 329th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Bach (March 21st, or 31st, depending on the calendar ‘style’) is an occasion of fascination for scholars who delve into the composer’s apparent special affection for the number 14; for the rest of us, it’s an excuse to seek out a performance of one of the great Passions; on the same weekend last year, I heard the Aurora Orchestra with the choir of Clare College at Kings Place in N1, and this year it was The Little Baroque Company with the St Cecilia Chorus at St Andrew’s Church in SM2 – very different styles and venues, but each performance given to a packed house and revealing, in their separate ways, the truth of the remark that “Not all musicians believe in God, but they all believe in Johann Sebastian Bach.”
The Little Baroque Company uses period instruments complete with gut strings, and if you’ve attended concerts at the London Handel Festival you’ll be familiar with the fresh yet scholarly approach taken by the players, ably led by Helen Kruger. Taming these beasts (the instruments, that is) in such a vast space as this one (it’s a dead ringer for Larkin’s description of a church as a barn, though it’s anything but “frowsty”) is not easy, nor is blending with a very large, very diverse chorus and four very different soloists without its challenges, but these were gracefully met, the continuo and obbligato passages providing much pleasure.
The St Cecilia Chorus has a distinguished history going back to 1922, and has had only four directors since 1960. The present incumbent, Jonathan Rennert, manages the choir with a light touch, drawing out singing of appropriate reverence in the grand chorales and achieving that sense of a congregational unity so desirable in this work. There are times when one might wish for a cleaner attack and more incisive diction, but these are compensated for by the directness and sincerity of the singing.
One sometimes regrets the choice of a version of the John which includes the two ‘killer’ tenor arias, but on this occasion they were missed, as there was no doubt that Gareth Treseder’s Evangelist could have coped with them. He tells the story in the Peter Schreier style – that is, an unfussy narrative which unfolds with natural progression – and although he does not (yet) have the full measure of some of the more wrenching lines (‘Als nun Jesus wusste alles, was ihn begegnen sollte’ for example) this was an intelligently musical and thoughtful interpretation. Charles Pott was a sonorous Jesus and bass soloist; ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ began tentatively but developed nobly. Ruth Gomme’s bright, crystalline tones were ideally suited to ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls,’ and she gave full dramatic emphasis to ‘Dein Jesus is tot!’ Patricia Hammond’s is a genuine contralto voice, so it was a pity that she did not seem quite comfortable with her arias on this occasion.
A good performance of the St John Passion might be measured by how much it makes you want to join in with the sublime final chorale, even if you’re an atheist, and I did find myself almost uttering those ineffably wonderful lines ‘Ach herr, lass dein lieb’ Engelein, Am letzten End die Seele mein, In Abrahams Schoss tragen.’
The next concert at St Andrew’s Church is on April 5th, with Crispian Steele-Perkins; works include Haydn’s E flat Trumpet Concerto, and Mozart’s Posthorn Serenade.