Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) St John Passion (2013)
Laurie Ashworth (soprano); Ed Lyon (tenor - Evangelist); Darren Jeffery (bass-baritone – Pilate); Neal Davies (bass – Christ); Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Wells Cathedral Oratorio Society; Wells Cathedral Voluntary Choir; Wells Cathedral Choir
Instrumental Ensemble/Matthew Owens
rec. May 2014, Wells Cathedral, Somerset, UK
English texts included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD412 [67:46]
Bob Chilcott's St John Passion dates from 2013. When John Quinn reviewed this recording on its first appearance in 2015, he described its structure and background admirably, so I don't have anything to add to that: just my quiet words of praise for the work and this recording of it.
We have long known Chilcott as one of the most accessible of contemporary composers for choirs. Memorable melodies and lovely harmonisations seem to flow from his pen with ease. However, we haven't seen much of him as a dramatist, and it is that which we get an insight into here. His Passion setting is as direct and communicative as those of Bach, whose unignorable influence Chilcott nods to through having a tenor Evangelist and bass Christ, accompanied by their own group of instruments so as to create their own particular halo of sound around each one. Ed Lyon makes for a slightly strident Evangelist but Neal Davies' Christ is always warm and noble.
At the heart of the Passion are four Meditations, setting older English poems. These are very beautiful, serving their meditative purpose perfectly. Two are for chorus alone, but Christ, my Beloved and Jesus, my leman both have prominent roles for a solo soprano - the beatific voice of Laurie Ashworth here - with the choir intensifying the mood appropriately.
However, the dramatic elements come furthest to the front at the start of Part Two, as they arrive in Pilate's Judgement Hall, with a cello ostinato that cranks up the tension like a film soundtrack and the use of the chorus that is direct and gripping. This adds a real sense of urgency to the remainder of the text, and Chilcott’s use of the solo cello to keen over the agony of Christ is very effective for the remainder of the work.
The instrumentation is mostly pretty sparing, with brass band providing the bulk of the accompaniment, with timpani, organ, viola and cello adding colour and drama. I also found the hymns most moving and, as all hymns should be, eminently singable, with warm, lovely melodies and a spiritual resonance in line with their texts. The whole thing bears the stamp of a master craftsman, so if you want to try something a little different this Easter, a Passion that isn't Bach, then you can investigate this one with total confidence.