Bob Chilcott’s setting of the St John Passion received its first performance on Palm Sunday 2013 as a liturgical service – in place of Evensong. That première was given in Wells Cathedral by Matthew Owens and the Cathedral Choir for whom it was written. I was present to review
the performance for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. Now, some two years later, a recording has arrived – fittingly, the disc dropped through my letterbox on Ash Wednesday as the season of Lent began.
In a note written for the first performance and now reprinted in the booklet accompanying this CD the composer said that he has had the good fortune to sing the role of the Evangelist in both of Bach’s Passion settings on several occasions in the past. He also retains vivid memories of singing Renaissance Passion settings during his time as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. “It is the austerity, the agony and ultimately the grace of this story that has inspired me to write this piece”, he says.
It’s relevant to detail the texts that Chilcott has selected and interwoven to form this Passion setting. For the Gospel narrative itself he has chosen the translation of St. John’s Gospel which is found in the King James Bible. The majestic, if archaic language imparts a poetry and rhythm to the work which contrasts with and complements the relatively simple musical style. I find that it’s a very satisfying blend of old words and new music. Instead of the recitative narration that we encounter in the Bach Passions Chilcott employs an arioso style of writing; this allows him a degree of expressiveness, which is especially important in the later stretches of the work, and it also gives the music something of an English feel.
The narrative is punctuated in two different ways. There are four reflective meditations sung by the choir, sometimes joined by the soprano soloist. These meditations set English poems dating from the sixteenth century or earlier. As with the choice of the King James Bible text the selection of these old-world texts is effective. In addition to these meditations Chilcott adds further reflection on the Gospel text through the use of hymns, in much the same way that Bach used chorales in which the Lutheran congregation joined, Chilcott uses five well-known Passiontide hymns, including There is a green hill far away
and When I survey the wondrous cross
. In this he follows the example of Stainer’s Crucifixion.
However, unlike Stainer Chilcott has written his own hymn tunes. These new tunes are not complicated but they’re highly effective and at the first performance I found them very easy to pick up, which is ideal for congregational use. For these hymns two choirs connected with Wells Cathedral act as the congregation.
The principal male singers are accompanied by a small instrumental group consisting of viola, cello, brass quintet, timpani and organ. The two stringed instruments accompany the tenor Evangelist, Pilate is partnered by two trumpets and Christ by the three lower brass instruments and organ. Those different instrumental colourings and textures seem to me to work very well. In particular, the instruments accompanying Christ impart a becoming gravitas to his music. The strings sometimes provide mellifluous, very English-sounding accompaniment to the Evangelist’s more lyrical passages yet impart astringency at more dramatic points in the score, especially in the Judgement Hall scene, which is divided into two parts.
The music itself is direct and essentially simple in character. As the work unfolds you find various motifs or short phrases recurring. All of this engages the listener’s attention. Initially the Evangelist’s narration is set to lyrical music in a recognisably English style. Once the drama moves to the Judgement Hall and the involvement of Pilate the parts for the two stringed instruments include a lot of ostinato-like rhythms. This emphasises the increasing urgency and starkness of the story and the Evangelist’s music becomes correspondingly urgent. Midway through the 12th
movement, ‘Jesus is crucified’ the narration takes on a wholly new tone. Ushered in by a melancholy cello solo, the Evangelist relates how Christ is handed over for crucifixion and the writing for the tenor becomes sorrowful and very moving. It is in this vein that the Evangelist’s part continues for the remainder of the score and Ed Lyon finds just the right degree of eloquence, singing the music in an affecting way but without any suspicion of affectation. This sets the seal on a very good performance. Throughout the work I appreciated his clear tone and diction and the understanding way in which he inflects the text.
The other principal soloist is the soprano Laurie Ashworth who, like Lyon sang in the first performance. On that occasion she impressed me and I’m delighted to hear her again. Her solos are delivered with lovely tone; there’s a very pleasing warmth to her voice but above all it’s the clarity and purity of her sound and diction that make her so effective. Her voice suits this music beautifully – did Chilcott write the part with her voice in mind, I wonder?
Most of the performers took part in the first performance but for this recording Darren Jeffery and Neal Davies have been brought in to sing the roles of Pilate and Christ respectively. Both do very well. Other smaller roles are taken by members of the Cathedral Choir.
The Wells Cathedral Choir makes a fine contribution. In particular I liked the sound of the treble line, which is sung by boy and girl choristers. This seems to me an excellent combination because the natural edge of the boys’ voices and the rather rounder soprano tone combine most effectively. Under Matthew Owens' leadership the Wells choir has established a well-deserved high reputation and this recording is another success for the choir. They display energy and bite when taking the part of the crowd in the Judgement scenes. In the meditations they sing with finesse. The singers are most effectively supported by the instrumentalists and Matthew Owens brings everything together under his guiding hand. I’m sure Bob Chilcott will have been thrilled to find the first recording of this score done with such evident commitment and skill from all concerned.
When I reviewed the first performance of the St John Passion
the piece was, of course, completely new to me. At the time I expressed the view that this is a successful and most impressive piece in which the musical ideas are accessible and make a strong appeal to the listener and, I’m sure, to the performers. This compact work, tells the Passion story effectively yet directly and succinctly, and Chilcott’s music is worthy of the subject. Returning to it now and having the opportunity for repeated listening while following in the score has in no way changed those initial opinions; rather they’ve been reinforced. This is an appealing, sincere and expertly crafted score and hearing it again in this very fine recording has moved me as much as that first performance.
The recorded sound is excellent: perhaps we should not be surprised at that since the highly experienced team of
Mike Hatch (engineer) and Adrian Peacock (producer) is responsible. There’s a thoughtful and very good booklet essay by Andrew Stewart.