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Music review: ASO's St John Passion

Music

Vocal is the focal point in Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘St John Passion’ and it was beautifully executed in the second of this year’s Master Series concerts from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

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Stephen Layton conducted the Adelaide Chamber Singers in conjunction with a reduced ASO line-up that allowed each to shine.

Bach’s incorporation of an Evangelist in this work offers extra narrative structure for the account of Christ’s trial and execution. A printed translation of the German lyrics provided to audience members was easy to follow. It also made clear that the Passion incorporates a great deal of repetition; one verse might be repeated several times.

The choruses varied in mood and volume, as one would expect from such a profound and dramatic story, and both were carefully controlled. There was the spiralling intensity of the opening and the massive eruption of sound that accompanied the brutality and grief associated with the aftermath of Jesus’s death. The soft background texture for the soprano’s soulful final aria was also brilliantly realised; just the right touch.

The level of instrumentation varied, with the whole of this mini-orchestra employed at times and much more spare accompaniment at others, such as oboe, cello and double-bass (and even a baroque seven-stringed viola da gamba). The latter approach featured especially when solo female vocalists took the limelight — soprano Sara Macliver and contralto Jess Dandy in their respective spots — giving more prominence to their excellent work. Macliver, in particular, brought precision and a purity of tone to her contribution in passages announcing joy.

The most frequent soloists, however, were tenor Gwilym Bowen as the Evangelist and bass baritone Laurence Williams as Jesus. Their lines were sometimes short but always sung with clarity and impact as befits key characters. Bass singer Michael Craddock, as Pilate, and tenor Ruairi Bowen were solid in their roles as well.

There are many instruments capable of a beautiful sound but, as they say, the one that comes most directly from God is the human voice. For centuries it was the key source of worshipful Christian sound. Whether or not one is a believer, it is indisputable that Stephen Layton, internationally respected for his choral work, elicited wonderful singing in this performance.

The success of this production was evident in the call for the key singers to return to the stage twice after the audience’s initial accolades.

St John Passion was performed at the Adelaide Town Hall on April 12 and 13. The ASO’s next Master Series concert – Fond Farewells, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth and featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto  and Mahler’s Symphony No 9 – will be on May 9 and 10. The orchestra is also presenting a Classics Unwrapped concert, Food Glorious Food, this Wednesday at the Town Hall.

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