Bach’s St John Passion

It was lovely hearing so many complimentary remarks about our performance of Bach’s St John Passion last Saturday. And ‘our’ in this instance covers not just the Southport Bach Choir, but the 18th Century Sinfonia and a team of six soloists, with our Musical Director, Ian Crawford, holding the whole thing together.

There were a couple of last-minute emergencies since both tenor soloists, Nicholas Hurndall Smith singing as Evangelist, and Tim Kennedy singing the arias, had to withdraw because of ill health. We had a week to find a replacement for Nicholas, and were extremely grateful to him for suggesting Simon Gfeller, who did a fantastic job, learning the part in a week, and singing wonderfully, conveying both drama and pathos, well partnered by the continuo accompaniment. Tim, at even shorter notice, was luckily able to find a replacement, Michael Solomon Williams, who sang the arias beautifully. Although he, too, was performing them for the first time, he was already prepared to sing them in Folkstone a week or two later, so we were able to give him a dry run, as it were. 

Another new face – or should I say voice – so far as the choir was concerned belonged to Martin Bussey, who sang Jesus’s recitatives with great feeling. We welcomed back the other three soloists, Barbara Ruzsics, Joyce Tindsley and Mark Rowlinson, all of whom have sung for us before, and who delighted us with their singing of the arias for soprano, alto and bass.

The St John Passion is a more tightly structured piece than the St Matthew Passion, and, I think, more dramatic. There are fewer reflective arias and the exciting, almost demonic choruses follow each other swiftly, especially in the second part, interspersed with chorales when the choir has to change character and sing as though leading a congregation. The solo arias, then, come as a relief, when the choir can sit down and enjoy listening to Bach’s intensely emotional music.

One of the delights in the Passions is the way that Bach deploys the instruments in the solo numbers (two flutes in the first soprano aria, for instance), and last Saturday we enjoyed listening to the players of the 18th Century Sinfonia, who play period instruments. After rehearsing with piano for most of our rehearsals, and electronic keyboard in the last two (to get us used to the lower Baroque pitch), it was a real delight to be accompanied by the orchestra, and to hear all the different sonorities.

This performance of the St John Passion launched our 50th anniversary year. Putting on such a work demands greater resources than usual and is very demanding on the conductor. We are most grateful to Ian for all his hard work, for giving us this opportunity of singing a much-loved work and getting our anniversary year off to a flying start.