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Review: Bach’s St John Passion, Otley & Ilkley Choral Societies

Review: Bach’s St John Passion, Otley & Ilkley Choral Societies, Yorkshire Chamber Ensemble, All Saints Church, Otley, Saturday 9th March 2024

April 7, 2024 will mark the 300th anniversary of the first performance of Bach’s St John Passion, at Good Friday Vespers in the Church of St Nicholas, Leipzig.

This, the earlier of Bach’s two surviving Passions is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of baroque sacred music, equal in stature to his much longer St Matthew Passion. A lynchpin of both works is the huge role of the Evangelist who narrates the story in declamatory style. The young English tenor James Micklethwaite projected his lines with clarity, brilliance and above all, an innate sense of the momentous unfolding drama.

The choirs were crisp and decisive as the scornful mob: “See! We hail Thee, King of Jews” and in their tumultuous demand that Jesus be put to death: “Crucify Him!” They also characterised observers who respond to the unfolding drama as well as singing the hymn-like chorales. These are usually sung by the congregation at liturgical performances of the Passion.

The feelings of those closely involved in perhaps the most compelling story ever told, are ingeniously voiced in Bach’s powerful and emotive writing for orchestra, choir and soloists. The voice of Jesus is allocated to a bass. Andrew Greenan infused the words of Jesus with nobility and grandeur.

Peter’s torment and remorse following his denial of Jesus is expressed in the aria for tenor and chamber ensemble Ah, my soul, where shall I hide my shame. This was sung in anguished tones by James Savage-Hanford. Pilate’s equivocation and regret was eloquently voiced by baritone Matthew Nuttall. Matthew also sang the beautiful aria with choir, Haste, all Ye whose souls are weary.

Soprano Elspeth Piggott sounded radiant in her aria I follow Thee gladly which contained an exquisite duet with the flute. Mezzo Lucy Appleyard impressed in her aria, From the bondage of Iniquity.

Yorkshire Chamber Ensemble’s sensitive accompaniment excelled in clarity of detail. John Longstaff played continuo on the splendid pipe organ at All Saints. The various strands of this complex work were carefully shaped into a cohesive whole by Alex Kyle, the promising new musical director of Otley & Ilkley Choral Societies.

St Peters Singers and the National Festival Orchestra will perform the St John Passion in Leeds Minster on Good Friday, 29th March at 7pm.