On Tuesday 19th April, Nicholas Kraemer conducted Bach’s
remarkably powerful St. John Passion, with an international line up
of soloists and one of the North West’s leading choral ensembles, the St George’s Singers. Bach’s masterpiece is a dramatic representation of the Passion, as told in the Gospel of John, conveying the last hours of Jesus’ life with startling and expressive immediacy.
The joint promotion by Manchester Camerata and St George’s Singers of Bach’s St John Passion at the Bridgewater Hall was not only a success at filling the building – it was also a great achievement in musical terms, under the expert hand of Nicholas Kraemer.
Borrowing good ideas from other quarters in staging the work, with the male solo singers on one side of the platform when ‘in character’ as Evangelist, Jesus Christ or Pontius Pilate, but moving to the other for the
contemplative arias, and using lighting to focus on the chorus when necessary, it emphasised the near-theatrical quality which animates it. The encounter between Jesus and Pilate – the latter excellently and alertly sung by Mark Stone – took on the atmosphere of opera-in-concert, and Matthew Hargreaves’ role as Christus had not only calm authority then, but an impression of the reality of agony as the crucifixion came to its end.
The chorus – trained by Neil Taylor, who also played the chamber organ for the performance – were superb in those fugal interjections as Jesus is crowned with thorns and robed in purple before the hostile crowd.
There is much more to the St John Passion than drama, however, and (though the lighting effects did not always work perfectly and repositioning of performers on stage sometimes broke concentration) the contrasts of dynamic and colour obtained by Kraemer from his large army of singers and players – by today’s canons of Bach practice – were remarkable and effective.
There was intimacy, too: I particularly admired Andrew Staples, not just for his fluid recitatives as Evangelist but for the quality of his aria singing, particularly in the meditation after the
The female leads were equally impressive.
Julia Doyle the soprano, and Clare Wilkinson, who made the alto’s Es Ist Vollbracht a near-operatic scena.
And the soloists from the chorus – Jennie Smallwood, Andrew Charlton, Brian Marsden and Jonathan Gort – were highly effective also.
Impact hardly faltered in the course of the long evening, and Kraemer brought it all to a deeply moving conclusion, ending the final chorale with a surging crescendo of praise.
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It was with interest that I noted that this performance was a joint venture with the specialist Manchester Camerata, the two organisations sharing the burden and, hopefully, the benefits, artistically and fiscally, of their combined support. The well-filled Bridgewater hall points to success in that field. Not to be ignored is the association with Nicholas Kramer, a world-renowned baroque specialist working with Chorus Director Neil Taylor.
They maintained that high standard throughout the work, not merely in strength, but in verbal nuance and sensitivity, each section of the choir, whether in unison or counterpoint, articulating the words as well as the meaning, the concluding Chorale (Ah Lord, let your dear Angels) being particularly well contrasted in its plaintive appeal.
If the choral contribution is important to any success of this early Leipzig piece, even more so is the singing of the Evangelist who, along with the tenor solos, has the largest solo part in the story. I had not heard the tenor Andrew Staples before, but was immediately taken by the timbre of his voice in the Evangelist’s opening recitative Jesus ging mit (Jesus went with his disciples). His light flexible tenor moves between head voice and chest without a break to give a seamless integrated whole. An edge to his chest voice allows for expression and meaning and allied with his honeyed head voice and vocal characterization was the centerpiece of the evening. Matthew Hargreaves, tall and angular of stature and singing without a score, was an imposing Christus, his tone more covered than the strong-voiced Mark Stone as a dramatic Pilate. Both female soloists were of a similar high standard. Julia Doyle, singing in the high tessitura with an appealing purity, notably in the aria No. 35 (Dissolve my heart). Her alto counterpart, Clare Wilkinson, was sonorous and equally impressive in No. 30 (It is accomplished).
Nicholas Kramer and the Manchester Camerata played an equally important part with the choir and the excellent soloists to give a memorable night for lovers of Bach’s creation as we approach Easter.
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