Reviews: St John Passion

Sunday 2nd April 2023, Auckland Town Hall

Rita Paczian Conductor

Alexandra Francis Soprano
Cecily Shaw Alto
Sid Chand Tenor Arias
Henry Choo Evangelist
Sam McKeever Christ
James Ioelu Bass

Rainer W Buhmann, NZ Opera

PASSIO SECUNDUM JOANNEUM,  Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion, was performed last Sunday at the Auckland Town Hall by the Bach Musica NZ Orchestra and Chorus, conducted   –  at times from the harpsichord  –  by its Music Director, Rita Paczian. The work was sung in the original German language.

Ambitiously conceptualized and composed by Bach as his first major work, following his appointment to the position of Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, it was premiered on Good Friday 1724. It therefore preceded his even more ambitious St Matthew Passion by 3 years.  At the time, Bach was in his prime. He was 39 years old.

In their respective formats, both Passions, St John and St Matthew are absorbed with the humiliating demise of Jesus Christ  –  initially in the court-proceedings chaired by Pontius Pilatus, when at first he renders Jesus Christ as innocent, but then ‘succumbs’ the coercion of the people, wanting some action  –  and finally during an extended period of unimaginable suffering, whilst nailed to the cross.

In both passions the chorus personifies both the raging crowd, accusing and terrorizing Jesus, as well as the philosophical onlookers from heaven with their grieving humility and empathy.                   

Bach’s St John Passion is a significant and complex work, requiring total commitment, responsibility and above average performing skills from orchestra and choir.

Bach allows only 17 bars of an insightful and somewhat foreboding introduction, when the Bach Musica NZ chorus bursts on to the scene with  “Herr, unser Herrscher”  –   At that very moment the audience receives an immediate reassurance that all will be well !  The chorus’ overwhelming authority and quality of sound eliminate any doubts. This experience is further heightened by the Evangelist, the story’s narrator,  sung by outstanding Australian tenor, Henry Choo, who superbly mastered a part that is fiendishly difficult.

From here-on in, Bach Musica NZ’s St John Passion grows from strength to strength.  In the alto aria,  “Von den Stricken meiner Suenden”, there is beautiful and captivating ensemble-playing by Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson, oboes, and Craig Bradfield, bassoon, this in support of the refined alto of Cecily Shaw.  –   This is followed by the happily disposed, young soprano Alexandra Francis in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”, for whom the higher ranges of her ‘cascading voice’ appear to be without limit.

The compelling aria “Erwaege, wie sein blutgefaerbter Ruecken”, powerfully sung by the young, engrossing tenor Shiddharth Chand was sensitively supported by the superb ensemble-playing of concertmaster Miranda Hutton and Joella Pinto (violins),  Paul Mitchell (cello) and Rita Paczian (harpsichord).

Amongst other undisputed highlights there is finally the heart-wrenching aria “Es ist vollbracht”, most convincingly presented by the warm and sensitive alto of Cecily Shaw,  poignantly supported by the beautiful viola-da-gamba-playing of Polly Sussex and the unobtrusive and dependable chamber organ accompaniment of organist Michael Bell.

Bach Musica NZ’s  St John Passion  received further support by the line-up of first-class soloists.

Once again: Henry Choo’s captivating and strongly assured tenor in the role of the Passion’s Evangelist clearly stood out.   His strength and stamina in leading the listeners through a massive work never wavered.  The varied shading of his voice, especially required in the compelling and gritty statement of lasting consequence: “Jesu von Nazareth, der Jueden Koenig !” was spine-tingling ! His pronunciation of the at times difficult ‘old’ German word was impeccable.

Soprano Alexandra Francis arrives at the oratorio-scene with ease and with the confidence of being able to contribute greatly. Her light, splendorous voice represented a considerable counterweight to the sadness and darkness of the passion’s proceedings. She justifies considerable expectation.

Cecily Shaw’s alto came to the fore in her second major aria rendition “Es ist vollbracht” .  Here, her warm voice sensibly reflected the sad conclusion of a devastating ‘human tragedy’.

Samuel McKeever’s  ‘Christ’  was equally dependable. His bass-baritone was strong and authoritative. His voice-projection, however, could at times perhaps have been more in line with the gentle and tolerant nature of the suffering Jesus Christ.

James Ioelu, bass,  convincingly sang one of the work’s most difficult arias (“Eilt”),  as his soulful rendition was repeatedly challenged by the choir’s continued interspersion with the question “Wohin ?”.    For this he must be duly acknowledged.

Arthur Adams-Close’s portrayal of the traitorous disciple Peter was believable and note-worthy.

Bach Musica NZ’s orchestra once again rested in the capable hands of concertmaster Miranda Hutton. And once again, it excelled !  Every orchestra section deserves genuine praise for skilful, committed and sensitive playing.  –   Michael Steer, the solitary double bass player, must be mentioned, and also flutists Christine Kim and Anna Cooper, adding a distinct glow to the soulful, concluding chorus:  “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine.”

And of course an equal measure of praise must go to the Bach Musica NZ Chorus  –  the bearer of an expressed responsibility.

There is no let-up in the chorus’ sound-quality and its phrased singing with strength and authority. From the utterly sensitive rendition of the heart-wrenching chorales to the fortissimo and ‘in-your-face’ rendition of the final chorale: “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein ….”  –   Bach Musica NZ’s orchestra and choir are simply amazing !

A humongous measure of acknowledgement and respect must go to Bach Musica NZ’s Music Director and Conductor, Rita Paczian. The chorus’ and orchestra’s notion, to grow beyond themselves, is clearly initiated by Rita Paczian’s artistic influence, her profound understanding of the music, her motivation and hard work.  The way she leads her artists when conducting goes beyond signs and signals.  Music takes hold and instigates an entire, physical immersion.  Within this process probably resides the Conductor’s ability to inspire and to extract from the artists more than they imagined being capable of.

The passion’s final chorale left the audience in momentary, stunned silence.  There is credence to the statement of one emotionally challenged, departing audience member, who said to his partner that to him this concert represented a very special   “star-hour”  in the history of Auckland’s performing arts  –  and that he was glad to have witnessed it !

                                                                        Rainer W. Buhmann

William Dart, NZ Herald

In 2014 Bach Musica NZ opened its season with Bach’s St John Passion and tonight the same
work launched this year’s concerts — which sign off in December with the same composer’s
Christmas Oratorio.
The audience’s enthusiasm was captured from the opening chorus, in which Rita Paczian
made it clear that this would be an evening of high energy and drama.
The choristers, singing in German, dealt out a succession of immaculate chorales and brought
a real emotional sway to Bach’s final moving chorus.
They were also integral participants in the work’s drama, with their gripping choral responses
to the beautifully paced and pointed narrative between the Evangelist, Pilate and Jesus. This
sequence was also heightened by the shift from terse continuo accompaniment for recitatives
to full Baroque orchestral splendour, which Paczian’s orchestra is well able to deliver.
Some in the audience may remember tenor Henry Choo as a mighty Evangelist six years ago.
Tonight, one felt that the Australian very much lives with this role, fine-tuning every
inflection and nuance of what is, perhaps, the ultimate Storyteller.
James Ieolu, as Pilate, impressed with his subtle, almost conversational involvement in the
musical dialogue, while also acquitting himself with fluency and style in two demanding
demanding arias.
Rita Paczian. Photo / NZME
Paczian is to be commended for bringing in young singers, recent graduates from our music
schools, on the brink of international study and making their names on the competition
Bass Samuel McKeever as Jesus, used his considerable vocal resonance as an effective foil to
the more theatrical Choo.
Tenor Shiddharth Chand who just a few weeks ago was in the cast of NZOpera’s Unruly
Tourists, combined shading and showmanship in his arias, set against some of Bach’s most
imaginative instrumental backdrops.
Soprano Alexandra Francis brough a winning brightness to her “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”
whilst alto Cecily Shaw needed a little more projection for her finely phrased and considered
singing to be fully appreciated.