Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, Geelong
J.S. Bach – St John Passion, presented by the Music at the Basilica, with the combined voices of the Windfire Chamber Choir and Geelong Chorale, Orchestra and soloists conducted by Joseph Hie. St Mary’s Basilica, October 8 2022
Bach’s first setting of the Passion of Christ, based on the Gospel of St John, was written four hundred years ago, and depicts a story over two thousand years old.
The Passion recounts the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ and is a foundation stone of the Christian religion. For those listening to the work in isolation, there is little hint that there is more to this story – the ultimate climax of Easter’s resurrection.
This performance was the opening concert in the 2022 Windfire Festival. After two years of pandemic, the festival returns with ten days of concerts. The Windfire Festival is presented by Music at the Basilica and directed by Frank De Rosso.
This performance of the St John Passion was conducted by Joseph Hie and performed a combined chorus of the Windfire Choir and the Geelong Chorale, and the Windfire Orchestra, with soloists.
From the first ominous chords of the opening chorus ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ (‘Lord, thou our Master’), there is a sense of impending doom. A bass pulse underlies each bar, rising and falling as the purpose of the work is outlined – to tell a key narrative to those attending a service on Good Friday. While the work was originally written as part of the liturgy, modern performances are almost always performed in concert. This allows the full drama of the work to shine.
Joseph Hie, conductor, had a sure control of his forces. As a chorister himself, Joseph appears to have an instinctive talent for bringing out every nuance from the choir. The fifty-strong chorus sang the challenging work with conviction. It is an extremely difficult task to move emotionally from a howling mob, baying for the death of Jesus, to become Christians, commenting with compassion, sorrow and faith, on this horrific story of politics, power and ultimate crucifixion.
The story is narrated by The Evangelist, sung here by Robert Mcfarlane. Bach’s recitative setting is dramatic. Mcfarlane has a consummate skill for this, word-painting the text from the softest falsetto to declamatory fortissimo, always in control, with Rhys Boak (organ) and Edi Cardingley (cello) providing a flawless continuo.
Adrian Tamburini was a convincing Jesus, whose commanding presence and superb bass voice dominated the action. Other characters who appear in first person are Pontius Pilate, Peter, a maid and a servant. These were performed by the soloists – including baritone Tom Healey who sang Pilate, while also joining the bass line of the chorus.
The solo arias, like the chorales sung by the chorus, comment and reflect on the action. Dannielle O’Keefe sang the alto arias with a clarity and conviction. It was refreshing to hear a woman singing this part – especially in a work dominated by the male perspective. Her two arias were for me a highlight of this performance. Lee Abrahmson’s rich soprano and soaring line gave a glorious warmth to the soprano arias – demonstrating a versitility equally at home singing Bach or Wagner.
Henry Choo sang the tenor arias with clarity and a lovely vocal line. Of particular note was the first aria. This is a fine example of Bach’s use of small forces for effect. Two violas and continuo accompany the tenor as he reflects that Christ’s suffering as a sign of God’s grace.
Other examples of Bach’s instrumental economy abound in this work. While the instruments may be considered as accompaniment, such compositions are really equal partnerships between players and voices. With limited rehearsal time, the musicians must form a bond as strong as those of a string quartet (who may have the luxury of many hours working together). Joseph Hie’s leadership was vital. In Windfire’s performance, technique became incidental as the tragedy unfolded over two short hours.
Bach’s music is timeless. The story this passion recounts is as fresh and relevant in our strife-riven times as it was two thousand years ago. One is left to wonder whether humanity has moved forward at all over these millennia.
The Windfire Festival continues over the next week. Information and tickets are available from Music at the Basilica.