Monday, 25 March 2013

Bach St. John Passion, St. Anne's in the City of London


There are a surprising number of ways in which to experience J.S. Bach's operas-in-all-but-name concerning the death of Jesus Christ in the run-up to Easter. Invariably, performances are given as a concert in order to encourage a paying audience and hire the necessary professional musicians.

Yesterday I participated in just such an event (though with free admission and a retiring collection), in which the performance formed the central part of an act of worship hosted by the Lutheran church at home at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in the City of London. This special Bach vespers saw the St. John Passion prefigured by a traditional choral prelude and hymn, broken up with a brief homily between Parts 1 & 2, and with a motet by Jacob Handl and prayers to conclude (it was also the first time in memory that I have attended a performance of a Bach Passion in a church that concluded without applause).

No doubt, the appeal of the Sweelinck Ensemble, resident ensemble of the church's adjunct St. Anne's Music Society, giving a performance of the work for free within the nominal service of vespers was responsible for a full house. And not just a full house, but a space in which chairs were brought in from the adjoining office to allow elderly latecomers to sit, if space could be found between those standing. It was heaving. Whether the slowly dissipating news that the Lutheran church and its concomitant Music Society are due to leave St. Anne's where both have existed for almost fifty years had inflated a potential audience/congregation with sentiment cannot be said. Whatever the cause of the packed church, it was an extraordinary situation to experience from any perspective. Singing the part of Christ meant that mine was at its very centre.

Perhaps that which I can't dispassionately describe is the music itself. However, the complete assimilation of the story by evangelist Julian Forbes was reflected by Clara Kanter's ardent Es ist vollbracht, rendered as emboldened rather than cowed by the central act of martyrdom. No-one familiar with St. Anne's would have been surprised by Emily Atkinson's pure-but-plangent soprano; however, even the wiring of the building seemed knocked sideways by the sheer weight of David Soar's Pilate whose first utterances appeared to overwhelm the stage lighting! The chorus, Eclectic Voices, were in the thick of the drama, raucous and reflective by turns. The viola da gamba of Mary Pells and violin d'amore of leader Hazel Brooks were notable obbligato highlights of Martin Knizia's admirable Sweelinck Ensemble.

The performance (that was in German) is due to be repeated in English (the Pears/Holst edition) at the Union Chapel, Islington on Friday. The high grade of music-making will be repeated. The wider purpose of the performance involving the community and promoting a holistic, spiritual foundation of the work is offered.

What cannot be replicated is the continuation of such music as part of the fabric of both building and tradition that St. Anne's Church has come to represent. The support of an overwhelming, health & safety-defying capacity audience is testament to the appetite for fine musical performance and worship co-existing within Wren's church of 1680 - a space built five years before the birth of Bach, and in whose ideal acoustic Bach's music has found its home and integrated purpose in London.

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