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.

The years 1965-1970

This is the second in the series of posts about the choir’s history.

The years 1965-1970 saw the choir (the Southport Bach Society, as it then was) develop a wide-ranging repertoire. David Bowman’s programming in the years that followed the choir’s foundation in 1965 was ambitious and exciting, including Matyas Seiber, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, as well as Bach, Haydn, Mozart and a Messiah in the Watkins Shaw edition. David ensured that the choir kept in touch with new music. As one of the early annual reports puts it, ‘a small piece of musical history’ was made when the choir, accompanied by instrumentalists drawn from the RLPO, performed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms as part of the summer concert in 1968. This was the first performance in the north of England, and, as David told me in a recent phone call, the percussionist had to make some of his own instruments for the performance!

‘New music’ in those days included compositions by David Bowman himself. The first was a setting of ‘O care, thou wilt dispatch me’, anonymous words that speak of music as an antidote to care, best known in a setting by Thomas Morley. This piece was partnered by Seiber’s four Slovak Folk Songs and performed at the Mayoress’s Charity Concert in March 1967. Another work by David was a cantata for choir and contralto solo, Dira Nox Animae, with Alma Dootson as soloist, which included a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 7, ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’.

Soloists and orchestra

Soloists were regularly drawn from the choir. As well as Alma, there were Sylvia Forshaw, a soprano, and her husband Eric, who sang tenor, and Eddie Twigg, another tenor. Lesley Threlfall and Judith Barritt, both founder members, took bass and contralto parts respectively. Another soprano drawn from the choir was Margaret Edwards, and towards the end of this period another contralto, Judith Barker, started to sing with the choir. For the Messiah that was performed in 1967, as part of the second Holy Trinity Festival, there was a different line-up of soloists. Alma was the contralto soloist, but the other soloists were not drawn from the choir. Peter Bamber (a name I don’t recognize) sang tenor, the soprano was Caroline Crawshaw and the bass was Patrick McGuigan. I don’t know if Patrick and Caroline were married at the time, but they did marry and both became singing teachers at the Royal Northern College of Music.

From the beginning David Bowman insisted on having an orchestra for at least one concert in the year. But the minutes of one AGM record his dissatisfaction with the quality of playing in the orchestra at the summer concert in 1969, and he suggested that he should contact someone in the orchestra with a view to forming a small chamber orchestra who would play for future concerts. When there wasn’t an orchestra the accompaniment was played on the organ; the two names that crop up most frequently are Brian Runnett and Keith Elcombe.

David Bowman’s last season

The newly formed Liverpool Concertante joined the choir for a Christmas concert in 1969 of instrumental as well as choral pieces, which seems to have been a great success. The secretary’s report says that it ‘received more appreciation both at the time and subsequently than any previous concert’. However, this was followed by a bad falling-off in choir attendance. The choir had been booked by Revd Roger Wikeley, who had previously been a curate at Holy Trinity, to sing at a festival in Woolston in May to celebrate the consecration of the Church of the Ascension, where he was now vicar. David said in his report at the 1970 AGM that he had been ‘very depressed and worried’ by the poor attendance and had seriously considered giving up as conductor of the choir. ‘It was impossible’, he said ‘to give concerts of the high quality associated with the name of the Southport Bach Society if members did not attend rehearsals regularly’.

As it turned out, David did indeed leave the choir at the end of that season, but not because of his dissatisfaction with the choir. The Woolston concert, in which the Concertante played Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, and the choir sang Vivaldi’s Gloria and Haydn’s Nelson Mass, was repeated in June at Holy Trinity, Southport. David’s departure was caused by a change of job. He moved from Preston Grammar School, which had recently converted to a Sixth Form College, to Ampleforth – where, in the course of time and with the support of Patrick Barry (the then headmaster) and Basil Hume, he founded Scuola Cantorum, a polyphonic choir for boys and a few monks from the Abbey, which also continues to this day.