St John Passion | Adelaide Chamber Singers & Sydney Chamber ChoirPhoto – Meg Hansen

How does one approach this work, which has taken its place among the peaks of Western culture? It is about a state-sanctioned murder. One audience member said that listening to this work was a spiritual experience. How is this possible? Well, for me, one answer has to do with the power and efficacy of art in general, in any culture. I am convinced that the American soldier who recently murdered an entire Afghani family would not have done it if he had loved, for example, Bach's St John Passion.

Anticipating this performance, the audience sat with that air of expectation involving a confidence in the experience they were going to have, a confidence that the two choirs involved, among the finest chamber choirs in Australia, and the assembled Australian soloists and players, would take them on a musical journey along paths trodden by so many great performers the world over.

Their confidence was justified. The Adelaide Chamber Singers and the Sydney Chamber Choir, the two choirs which formed the chorus, were magnificent in their triple role of the crowd headed by Jewish priests, the individual who reflects on their actions in the chorales, and the impassioned onlookers  who sing the two wonderful pieces which open and close the work. The chorales, varied within themselves according to their emotional import, were polished, meticulously phrased, and emotionally satisfying. The crowd choruses were dramatic, sometimes to the point of hysteria, but always disciplined and precise. Throughout, their German diction was exemplary. Carl Crossin's tempi were brisk, which suits the dramatic narrative, but at no time did the choirs sound rushed, even in the wild Kreuzige! choruses.

The part of Jesus was sung with solemnity by Douglas McNicol, in a way which made it hard to imagine that the character he was portraying was a 33-year-old man in an impossible situation (I thought he sang the bass arias much better.) Craig Everingham made a thoughtful and compelling Pilate, who is a really important figure in the St John Passion. But the star of the evening, in my opinion and that of the packed audience, was Robert Macfarlane as the Evangelist. Not only did he perform this extremely demanding role with great dramatic variety of delivery and with impeccable diction, but his timing was almost theatrical – and he didn't just stop when he finished a passage, but retained his involvement when the other characters, including the chorus, were singing, as if he were on an operatic stage. Further, he sang as though he was telling it all to us for the first time. He is a real find, and to my mind another step forward in the dramatic interpretation of the evangelist's role.

Macfarlane's dramatic integrity was slightly undermined by a curious decision regarding where the solo singers were sitting. The Evangelist was, appropriately, sitting by the continuo section, but all the others were parked to one side of the band. This might not have affected things, if they had walked to and from their place in front of the orchestra during the introductions or codas of their arias. But they did so in the gaps between the numbers. It only took them a few seconds, but it was enough to break musical, if not the dramatic, thread a little.

The singers were joined by an orchestra of excellent players led by Lucinda Moon, one of Australia's most experienced and capable baroque violinists. The strings were (predominantly) period instruments, including Katherine Finnis' eloquent viola da gamba, and the chamber organ, inventively yet tactfully played by Glenys March, matched them beautifully. I was surprised, though, that the wind instruments were modern. When I used to perform the Bach passions with the Sydney Chamber Choir in the 80s and 90s, good baroque wind players were available. The flautists and oboists played with great attention to eighteenth century style and phrasing, and indeed were deeply expressive in the wonderful obbligato arias such as Zerfliesse, mein Herz and Von den Stricken. But in the latter aria the mezzo Sally-Anne Russell's intensely expressive singing was too often covered by the sound of the modern oboes, well-played as they were by Celia Craig and Peter Duggan; and though the unison flutes played with great tact and finesse in the first soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls, sung with flowing elegance by Greta Bradman, I thought that to use only one flute would have given a better balance.

There is another, much more fundamental, problem with using some modern instruments in performances of Bach's passions, besides matters of balance. Performing at modern pitch, a semitone higher than a (putative) baroque pitch, pushes the vocal tessitura just outside the singers' comfort zone. The vocal technique of both choir and soloists was equal to the demands, but I think they would agree that the music is difficult enough without that added challenge.

Having said that, however, it is a testament to the distance that early music performance has come in the last 30 years that a performance of this work with blended instruments can be as stylistically coherent as it was last night.

Last night's performance was the second of two given in the Adelaide Festival. The choirs will perform the work again in two weeks time, in Sydney on Palm Sunday, April 1st. It will be performed in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, which was for many years the home of the Sydney Chamber Choir. I urge my readers not to miss this benchmark performance if they find themselves in Sydney then.

Adelaide Chamber Singers and Sydney Chamber Choir
St John Passion
J.S. Bach

Conductor Carl Crossin

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall | 128 King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: March 16 – 17, 2012
Tickets: $59 – $25
Bookings: BASS Online | 131 246

Part of the 2012 Adelaide Festival

Most read Adelaide reviews

More from this author

Now playing Adelaide