The St John Passion may be less beloved, but it is every ounce as dramatic and exciting as its brother Matthew.
Not that you would know much about that from Wednesday evening’s performance at the Cadogan Hall, for this was a rendition that tried hard but failed to capture that spirit of Bach.
And spirit is an imperative here: in the flowering solo vocal lines; in the fizzling counterpoint of the choruses; in the transcendent chorale harmonies.
At least the performance got the last thing right: The London Chorus didn’t do angry well, but their chorales were shaped with admirable clarity and great concentration on the melding of lines. The opening chorus of Part One was also firmly sung, with dynamic, pithy coloratura and a purposeful beat.
Credit should go to conductor Ronald Corp. He had a tendency to space out numbers the further in that we went (given that Part Two is lengthy anyway, such a thing is bordering on foolhardy), but his direction was crystal clear and his overall vision intelligent. He also produced a firm sound from the New London Orchestra. I could have done with a little less soup and a tad more transparency at times, but the group provided solid support. They even excited: in the viola da gamba solo in the alto’s Part Two aria or in the consistently propulsive violin and viola playing.
But without outstanding soloists, moments of excitement from the orchestra sadly mean not an awful lot. The bizarrely pure tenor of Mark Wilde should have been the best thing here, but the job of the Evangelist is not solely to tell the story: he must also react to it. When Jesus expired, I longed for a weightier tone and a greater fluency of expression in the harrowing narration. At least his performance was solid.
Soprano Grace Davidson has an odd voice, but she phrased well in both Parts and projected easily. Bass Chris Moore lacked both gravitas and top notes in the role of Christ (a tiny part, but a vital one nevertheless). Alto Tim Mead tended to hang around the pitch, but his vibrant counter tenor ring was pleasing and his rendition of the Part Two aria Es ist vollbracht provided some much needed emotional release.
It was the baritone of Benedict Nelson that provided most for concern. Call me old fashioned, but I rather expect a singer to look up from his score occasionally while singing. And the man’s continual scowls into the audience were troubling: it is hard to become lost in the glorious song of Bach when you feel intimidated by one of the singers.