March 2015: St John Passion

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 28 March 2015

Source: Stephen Bell

The Exeter Festival Chorus has earned a reputation for high-quality choral singing, and enhanced it with a compelling performance of Bach’s great St John Passion.

Unusually, the concert was given in the cathedral Quire, which has some advantages - intimacy and logistics - but also some disadvantages, a cramped seating layout for the audience, a restricted view of the performers and possibly some problems with the choir’s diction, compared to the St Matthew Passion performance in the Nave, a few years ago. 

The role of the chorus is wide-ranging in Bach’s Passions; the baying crowd demanding Christ’s crucifixion, expressive interpretation of the Lutheran chorales which punctuate the music, and gentle background comment in support of the soloists. Exeter Festival Chorus fulfilled the task well, with very good blend, intonation and a keen sense of drama. Nigel Perrin made sure that the changes of choral personality and style were well-handled and carefully paced, though I felt that at times the anger of the crowd scenes could have been sung with even greater vehemence. The decision to keep the chorus seated for the two movements in which they supported a soloist was not wholly successful, as the choir became less clear and the balance then favoured the soloists. The notoriously difficult “Wohin” chorus suffered a slight lack of rhythmic decisiveness and clarity as a result.

The team of soloists told the familiar story persuasively, the pace being carefully adjusted by the conductor to suit the drama as it unfolded. Despite being placed behind the orchestra none of the soloists had problems balancing the orchestral volume. The choice of performing the Passion in the original German lent authenticity, but it can be argued that the drama is more difficult to follow, particularly if the performance is intended as a Holy Week offering. However the Exeter audience was able to keep up with the story quite comfortably, thanks to the expressive dramatisation by the tenor Evangelist David Webb and also to a well – organised programme layout with the English translation. The authenticity was enhanced by the period-instrument orchestra Music For Awhile, led authoritatively by Maggie Faultless, including some outstanding instrumental obbligato solos in the arias and a very competent continuo team.  Baritone Julian Rippon gave the part of Christ due solemnity and calm, contrasting vividly with the powerful Benedict Nelson in the role of Pontius Pilate. Counter-tenor Rupert Enticknap warmed to his task, singing the “Es ist vollbracht!” aria most beautifully, contrasting in style with the vocal steeliness of soprano Katherine Manley. If one had a criticism, I think it would have been appropriate to have a different tenor soloist to handle the arias, making a contrast with the Evangelist.

Congratulations to Nigel Perrin, orchestra, soloists and Exeter Festival Chorus on a heartfelt, moving and musically successful performance.