JS Bach: St John Passion

Kennedy, Thomas, Wilson-Johnson, Academy of Ancient Music, King's College Choir, Cambridge/Cleobury

Cadogan Hall, 29 April 2011 4 stars

Andrew Kennedy by Benjamin EalovegaIn Easter week the Academy of Ancient Music and King's College Choir gave two performances of the St John Passion: one in King's College Chapel in Cambridge and one, on the following evening, in Cadogan Hall - the first appearance together in London of this particular choir and orchestra. Two more different acoustics for a Bach Passion can hardly be imagined!

From the soaring, resonant spaces above the choir and congregation in King's to the dead, dull, clinical sound of a packed Cadogan Hall on a warm London evening. And yet the magic of the former space somehow invaded the latter: how much adjustment of tempo and dynamics took place I can only conjecture, but the sound world that was created on the concert stage was vivid, beautifully controlled, subtle and always in balance.

Stephen Cleobury conducted a richly satisfying account of one of Bach's most glorious scores - aided by some wonderful playing and by vocal and choral forces that quickly found their feet in the Cadogan Hall environment. The result was a musical, and a spiritual treat.

The biggest sing of the evening - ignoring the chorales and choruses for the moment - comes from the Evangelist, and it is absolutely crucial to cast this role well. I last heard Andrew Kennedy sing the Evangelist two years ago, at Snape Maltings, and I wrote at the time of his 'unfailing beauty of tone, his variation of light and shade and his ever changing vocal dynamic'. Well, if anything he has got better: with perfect German articulation and a wonderfully intuitive sense of when to inject pace and energy into his recitative and arioso passages, and when to hold back and to concentrate on sheer beauty of tone and sound. The Evangelist of course tells the tale and carries the story: so the singer has to move things along, and to interact in appropriately dramatic fashion with his fellow principals - but with Kennedy in voice like this, the temptation was simply to sit back and listen to him all evening!

This was a wonderful performance, and a case study for any tenor (lyric and dramatic) in how to make recitative passages not merely interesting, but a treat to listen to in their own right.

Next to Kennedy, in terms of nobility of tone and delicate phrasing, I have to mention the Christ of David Wilson-Johnson. There is still richness in the voice but arresting delicacy in the mezzo voce phrases such as 'Weib, siehe, das ist Dein Sohn'. I liked the colour Wilson-Johnson gave to his vowel sounds and I liked his sense of melodic line throughout. This was a fine assumption of the role.

Elin Manahan Thomas sang the two soprano arias and impressed me particularly in the second one, 'Zerfliess, mein Herze'. She has a bright, attractive timbre (almost soubrettish at times) and an excellent sense of attack, but managed also to spin an ethereal line that was wholly suited to the sombre 'Dein Jesus ist tot!' towards the end. Thomas used very little vibrato (good) and always appeared comfortable on top of the particular string sound produced by the AAM, with its richness of timbre and precise chording.

Instead of an alto or contralto, the young counter-tenor James Laing sang 'Von den Stricken meiner Sünden' and 'Es ist vollbracht!' The latter became an exquisite dialogue with the viola da gamba of Reiko Ichise and was a highlight of the second half. I have heard Laing on the opera stage and I like the timbre of his voice: still light, it nonetheless has great expressive power and a richness in the lower register that promises great things. Laing's breath control was taxed by an impossibly long-drawn 'Trauernacht…' in his most famous aria, but his poise and musicality saw him through.

The smaller solo voices were nicely contrasted. Marcus Farnsworth had good bass sonority and blended beautifully with the choir in the aria and chorale 'Mein teurer Heiland', although I thought the pitch of 'Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen' was a shade too low for the natural bloom of his sound to come through strongly. Ashley Riches was a responsive, expressive Pilate and produced magical colour in his interpolated Sehet, Welch ein Mensch! And Andrew Tortise produced a darker, more dramatic tenor sound for his arias, contrasting nicely with the mellifluous strains of the Evangelist. His voice has good focus and definition, promising much for the future.

The Choir obviously know their conductor's every nuance of expression and followed wherever he led. I found the opening chorus 'Herr, unser Herrscher' a shade deliberate and I wondered if a bit of dynamic range-finding was going on, but the sound of the Choir got better and better the longer the evening progressed: 'Wir haben ein Gesetz' was thrillingly articulated, 'Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen' was precise, rhythmically phrased and taken at a great tempo. The first and second verses of the chorales were contrasted nicely, the rich and bright sonorities of the opening lines giving way to hushed echoes of what had just been said and sung. I had a slight sense that the Choir might have been flagging towards the end, but the final chorale dispelled that impression: like a great wave of sound, we moved to that incomparable 'Herr Jesus Christ, erhöre mich/Ich will Dich preisen ewiglich!' and all seemed well with the world again.

Of course, a huge contribution to the musical excellence of the evening came from the Academy of Ancient Music, playing cleanly, vividly and with unfailing support for the Choir and conductor. Their sound is always something to treasure: when expressed through the rich accompaniments to the St John Passion, it becomes something even more special. So a St John Passion to remember, and hopefully a foundation stone for many things to come on the London scene from these rather wonderful musical forces.

By Mike Reynolds

Photo: Andrew Kennedy by Benjamin Ealovega

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