Live Review: DU Chamber Choir’s St John Passion

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With Lent upon us, Durham University Chamber Choir gave a very seasonal concert of J. S. Bach’s St John Passion, which commemorates Jesus’s suffering and death, showcasing some of Durham’s best vocal talents. St John Passion is one the hardest choral works ever written and is regarded as a masterpiece of all time. Accompanied by Durham Baroque, this ambitious performance was presented with much confidence and taste.

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Having two professional singers, the world-renowned baritone Roderick Williams and professional tenor Benedict Hymas, was no doubt the highlight of the concert. Hymas as the Evangelist narrated the whole story vividly and employed appropriate interpretation. The words “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly) were particularly poignantly sung.  The Evangelist part is constantly at a very high tessitura, but Hymas managed well and his performance was energetic throughout the two hours of performance.  Williams’s operatic background definitely contributed to his convincing portrayal as Jesus.  Thorough the understanding of text and corresponding facial expressions helped the audience understand the story as well as Jesus’s emotions.  Specific compliments must go to Williams’s controlled use of vibrato.  As an opera singer, he is perhaps more used to an extravagant use of vibrato but he refrained from doing so in this performance, as less vibrato is generally preferred in sacred music.

The choir gave a glorious performance – it was particularly demanding for the singers as they were scrambled between parts.  This means that everyone stood next to a singer in a different voice part and that they had no one to rely on to follow the music.  This difficulty was worth doing as the choir produced a full blended sound.  The opening chorus was especially impressive. The overwhelming yet well-balanced sound successfully set the solemn atmosphere of the whole performance.

Apart from being loud and imposing, the choir is also capable of delivering quiet accompaniment passages, such as the chorale interjections in the first bass aria in the second part.  On the whole, the German diction was clear and consonances sounded together.  Sopranos did a particularly good job of creating an impression of synchronised trills at cadence points.  The turba choruses (the crowd: impersonating the Jews, soldiers et cetera) were well-characterised, sung with appropriate emotions such as fury or determination.

However, the commenting chorus and chorales could have sounded more inward and reflective.  It gave a feeling of less effort and attention being put into rehearsing these chorales as they are less technically demanding.  Moreover, some of the chorus parts were slightly approximate.  The pitches of “Wohin?” (Where to?) in “Eilt” (Hurry) were inexact although they rhythms were spot on.  In addition, some entries or interesting features of the counterpoint were occasionally lost in the huge wash of sound the choir produced.  It would be an even more stunning performance if they were made crystal clear.

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It was a treat to have period instruments such as the Viola da Gamba to accompany the singers.  Aside from period instruments, this historical informed performance was reinforced by the fact that they used Baroque tuning to recreate what the congregation would have heard in the 18th century. The ensemble between the choir and the orchestra was tight.  This was manifested at links between the recitatives and chorus sections, where the choir and orchestra made their entrances immediately and accurately, without hesitation, almost every single time.

Despite the fact they are a professional orchestra, one cannot help but wonder why several seemingly basic mistakes happened. One of the cellists dropped her bow in a very quite recitative passage which distracted the audience. Other problems were in the obbligato parts.  The two flutes in “Ich folge” (I follow) did not sound together, the oboes in “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins) and the cello in “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is accomplished) were clearly out of tune. With these in mind, the soloist of these arias, Elen Roberts, Michael Ash and Lydia Sheppard managed particularly well.

The solos arias were of a wide range of quality; singers who stole the limelight were Elen Roberts, Aaron Prewer-Jenkinson, James Quitmann and Camilla Harris.  The light, charming tone Roberts produced conveyed the joyful text “Ich folge” (I follow) in a convincing manner.  The soft yet well-projected high notes were a display of technical control and the consonants were crisp and clear. Prewer-Jenkinson impressed the audience with his lines as Pilate. Besides singing them precisely, the sense of authority and compassion when addressing different people, for example the Jews or Jesus, came across effectively through his interpretation. Quitmann produced an impeccable tone and demonstrated remarkable breath control when singing the long melismas of semiquavers in his aria “Eilt!” (Hurry!).  Harris gave a touching performance of the aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” (Dissolve, my heart). She left an impact in the audience by expressing the distress in the aria and her consistent tone across her range. The very minor break at the very end of the aria did not take anything away from her moving performance.

Special credits must go to Emily Burnett and Hugo Hymas. Burnett as choir manager did well in promoting the concert and putting everything together. In fact, it was a full house of audience and reached the maximum audience capacity of the Great Hall of Durham Castle. Although a minor issue could have been attended to – there was a slight hint of being underprepared as the choir did not seem to have enough space to sit on stage and this problem was not rectified after the interval. Hymas’s clear conducting and tasteful interpretation gave life to the performance. The choir generally sounded well-rehearsed and unanimous. All in all, as a student choir, members of Durham University Chamber Choir can be proud that they tackled this ambitious performance successfully which was shown by the prolonged applause at the end of the concert.

Photographs: Durham University Chamber Choir

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