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Bach: St John’s Passion

Barbican

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Iam ashamed to admit that we arrived a little late for this concert. But the staff at the Barbican were ever so helpful and sent us to the upper gallery to listen to the first part of the work. Still, it did feel a bit like having to sit on the naughty step as other latecomers furtively joined us.

Crouch End Festival Chorus were already in full flow, interacting beautifully with the narrative story provided by the Evangelist, performed magnificently by Robert Murray.

I tried to work out exactly where we were but found it difficult. The libretto in the programme (the piece was sung in German) had apparently been typeset by a 19-year-old with perfect eyesight who had assumed that 6pt would do the job for everyone. Not in restricted light it won’t!

The acoustic up in the gods is fantastic – every nuance of this amazing piece of music came through as well as the opportunity to look at the concert seen from perhaps 80 yards away. You might get a glimpse of the scene as there was a young chap in front recording lumps of the performance on his mobile phone: perhaps worth a visit to YouTube.

The story builds slowly, from the scene setting in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest of Jesus, his examination by Pilate (an excellent performance by Leandros Taliotis portrays him as frustrated rather than sinister) and the bitter regret of Peter at having denied his master thrice.

The Chorus, under David Temple’s sensitive but controlling lead, set exactly the right mood of sorrow, rage, desolation and foreboding of what is to come.

Refreshed after the interval, the entire chorus played the terrifying role of the mob, screaming “if he were not a malefactor we would not have delivered him up unto thee.”

This was continued in a later recitative passage, the chorus bringing life, vigour and venom to their collective priestly role in the terrifying refrain after Christ has been crowned with thorns: “Crucify Him.” The waves of hate sounded like thousands of tiny birds pecking at a large beast until, overwhelmed by sheer numbers, it must surely fall to the ground.

Throughout the piece, Stephen Loges as Christ was magnificent. His arioiso, followed by an aria, was sublime. A man descending to hell and torment: the music support of just an organ and two almost dissonant violins, was amazing.

The recitative when the Evangelist (supported only by Peter Jaekel’s excellent organ playing) proclaims “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished) was a deeply sombre moment: the audience was entranced and even David Temple stood stock still.

Straight afterward came Diana Moore’s beautiful and captivating aria – a solo cello echoing her every word. A spellbinding study in melancholy and desolation.

The beauty and invention of this piece cannot be understated. It was only as I listened to the penultimate chorale that I understood the depths Bach had taken us to as the chorus broke the claustrophobic tension of the work’s grief. The last chorus (Ruht wohl) was delivered as a comforting, beautiful, tearful lullaby.

With stunning performances by all the soloists and the London Orchestra da Camera, the Crouch Enders delivered a marvellous, intimate evening for the large and appreciative audience. It was achieved not simply in their technical mastery of the work, but also in the deep understanding of where Bach was leading them and us. Unforgettable.

David Winskill

o Details of the July 2 concert (closer to home in Muswell Hill) are on www.cefc.org.uk.

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