To celebrate Easter 2023 Melbourne Bach Choir combined two glorious choral works and a recital by one of Australia’s foremost violinists. The idea of presenting Bach’s St John Passion and Handel’s Messiah a mere two days apart might seem overly ambitious at first sight, but there is no doubt that it provides a timely opportunity for immersion in the story of Christ’s crucifixion as envisaged by of the two great pillars of Baroque choral music.
Although Bach’s stupendous St Matthew Passion is at the core of Melbourne Bach Choir’s repertoire – in fact, its raison d’être – his somewhat leaner St John Passion is actually preferred by many choral music enthusiasts. Both, of course, are pinnacles of the world’s musical creations. In his brief introduction to this performance, conductor Rick Prakhoff pointed out that the St John Passion was first performed on April 7, 1724 – exactly 299 years ago.
The smaller forces of the Chamber Choir, with more balanced numbers of men and women promised greater clarity, and that was often achieved. Within the resonant acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, there was a danger that the sound could swirl around in louder passages with full orchestra and parts become blurred, especially with the acoustic blinds up. This tended to be the case with some of the runs in the opening Chorus with its wonderfully declamatory “Herr” (Lord) that launched proceedings. That said, the final Chorus and Chorale were exceptionally well defined, with the men well and truly “warmed up” and giving of their best. Clean entries and endings were marks of Rick Prakhoff’s clear direction and attention to precise detail.
An impressive line-up of soloists resulted in some extraordinary singing. Andrew Goodwin has continued to be a huge favourite with MBC audiences since his debut as Evangelist many years ago. Uniquely suited to the key role of storyteller, his splendid tenor voice and sensitive musicality were as thrilling as ever. Whether narrating passages from the Gospel with dramatic urgency or imbuing key moments with the utmost poignancy, such as the long melismatic “weinete” where Peter wept after his betrayal, his singing reflected the mood of the text. It would be difficult to find a tenor with a more beautiful pianissimo and better breath control in those long drawn out phrases.
As Jesus, baritone Christopher Hillier also coloured his voice to express a range of emotions. Establishing a sense of firm composure, he used warmer tones for moments of compassion and conveyed the agonies of the crucifixion very movingly. Although a little more vocal strength would have given the character of Pilatus greater presence, James Emerson sang commendably with pleasant, even tone.
Aided by excellent work from featured members of the orchestra, all soloists for the arias were outstanding. Tenor Henry Choo was particularly impressive in the demanding aria “Ach, Mein Sinn” (Ah, my soul), his voice vibrant and urgent.
Lorina Gore – a glowing presence and always appearing involved and alert – was fresh and sparkling for the joyous aria “Ich folge dir” (I follow you). Accompanied by a pair of extremely well coordinated flutes, her voice was always clear, fluid and bell-like, the acoustic making certain notes ring brilliantly. Accuracy and clean articulation was a feature of her singing.
Sally-Anne Russell sang the alto arias with her customary flair – her appealing vocal quality, masterful control of breath and vibrato, and her musicality a constant pleasure. She was able to sing the softest pianissimo and still be heard. Accompanied by organ and Laura Vaughan’s seductive viola da gamba, her performance of the exquisite “Es ist vollbracht” (It is accomplished) was deeply moving.
Jeremy Kleeman’s singing appeared to be flawless; he reminded me of Max van Egmond, the featured bass on the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording of the St John Passion. Kleeman has a very fine instrument, full of vitality, a relaxed vocal production that is even from top to bottom, and considerable expressive power. Like Lorina Gore, he conveyed a sense of energy and engagement even when not singing. The Aria for Bass and Chorus – the latter seated – was yet another highlight.
The Melbourne Bach Orchestra was excellent. The playing in general was stylish and there were some outstanding featured performances with pairs of instruments standing to accompany different arias, notably flutes for the soprano, oboes d’amore for the alto, and violins for the bass arioso and the tenor aria “Erwäge” (Ponder). As Concertmaster, Rachael Beesley was an assured leader, abetted by some of Melbourne’s finest players, notably Cameron Jamieson, who led the group of second violins positioned on the opposite side of the conductor. Two players deserve extra special mention for their superlative efforts as indefatigable continuo players: Josie Vains on cello, and the remarkable Donald Nicolson on harpsichord and organ – played almost simultaneously at times.
Just as Bach’s St Matthew Passion has become an MBC staple, it is to be hoped his St John’s Passion will have a similar place. The enthusiastic reaction of the audience may well guarantee it.
Before her violin recital in the Primrose Potter Salon, Rachael Beesley spoke about the music she would perform and how Holy Saturday is an occasion for quiet reflection in preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection. Beginning at 5pm – just before dusk, which ends Holy Saturday – atmospheric lighting and twenty candles flickering from ledges in the Salon’s back wall panels created an aura of reverence for what is also called “the Saturday of light”.
Interspersed between the musical items – two works by Bach for solo violin: Partita No. 2 in D minor and Sonata No. 1 in G minor, and Biber’s Passacaglia in G minor – Tim Dehn contributed several readings in mellifluous, measured tones. Beginning with words from the St John Passion tenor aria “Ah, my soul”, he later read passages from Robert Browning’s The Guardian Angel and George Herbert’s Easter – the latter beginning so appropriately with “Rise heart; thy Lord is risen”.
As for the previous day as Concertmaster, Rachael Beesley’s playing was exemplary. Full-toned, pliant and flowing, she gave expressive power to all works, weaving embellishment seamlessly into the musical fabric, and using just enough vibrato to enliven it. While the two Bach works are familiar standard repertoire, the Biber (a work possibly relating to the story of the Guardian Angel as the final moment of the Mystery of the “Rosary Sonatas”), is less often played. It was a real pleasure to hear the many variations that comprise this work performed with such tonal colour and musical intention. The Partita began at a faster tempo than I was accustomed to, but was part of a dynamic approach that often required a high degree of virtuosity. The capacity audience responded enthusiastically to what had been a most satisfying concert.
Rick Prakhoff’s introduction to the performance of Handel’s Messiah highlighted some of the difficulties still presented by COVID. Some members of the Chamber Choir had fallen ill after their concert, thereby depleting numbers for the main Choir; although all soloists were unaffected for this concert, covers had now become necessary and needed to be acknowledged for their contribution.
As tenor soloist, Goodwin’s approach to the Handel was, understandably, more operatic than his stunning Evangelist had been. As an opera composer, who turned to oratorio for financial reasons as opera’s popularity waned, Handel’s recitatives are often more dramatic. The qualities that distinguished his Bach were still very much in evidence in Goodwin’s Handel. The tenor sets the vocal tone with the opening recitative, “Comfort ye”, and ensuing aria “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”. Goodwin sang with ringing tone when needed, paring it back to the beautiful, smoothly floating tone in which he excels for the repetitions of “Comfort ye”. Scarcely looking at his score, he successfully communicated both the drama and pathos of the recitatives and arias of the Second Part. Accompanied by organ and held strings, his wonderfully expressive “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” was a highlight, while the aria “Thou shalt break them” was distinguished by admirable agility and true, ringing high notes.
Lorina Gore continued to radiate joy in all she sang. Always displaying involvement, whether she was singing or not, her ability to communicate the spirit of what she sang was a delight and warranted the enthusiastic response she received from both the audience and performers at the end of the evening. Her agility in “Rejoice” and carefully wrought expressiveness in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” – the latter another highlight – were further enhanced by ornamentation in the da capo sections.
To hear Simon Meadows as bass soloist almost immediately after hearing him as Alberich in Melbourne Opera’s Ring was both disconcerting and intriguing. His first recitative, “Thus said the Lord”, rang with a thrilling authority, his focused bass baritone making us all sit up and pay attention. Some listeners might have missed the thrill of the customary – rewritten for castrato – version of “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, but there was plenty of very well defined florid singing elsewhere to compensate. A vibrant “The trumpet shall sound”, most ably accompanied by Nic Corkeron, was a splendidly triumphant completion to the work of the soloists.
As alto soloist, Belinda Paterson seemed ill at ease and an overly subdued messenger of good news, but her singing of “He was despised” was more persuasive, with lower notes pleasingly substantial.
The Melbourne Bach Choir appeared to come back even more strongly after interval, beginning with a solid account of “Behold the Lamb of God”, sopranos sustaining some long high notes with seeming ease. The fugue was well delineated in “And with his stripes”, and there was no discernible going astray in a crisp “All we like sheep” that followed. Some individuals in the male parts stood out at times, but the firm line that benefitted from this seemed worth any shortcomings in blending. For the most part, reasonably good blending was achieved within each section and overall. The final choruses of affirmation showed no flagging in energy level or articulation. Like the buoyant “His yoke is easy” that concluded the First Part and the “Hallelujah!” Chorus – for which most of the audience stood – that ended the Second Part, Handel’s Messiah concluded on an uplifting note.
All sections of the Melbourne Bach Orchestra, this time led by Cameron Jamieson, played stylishly and with verve. Once again, Donald Nicolson’s tireless contribution on organ and harpsichord showed him to be a performer of remarkable skill and musicianship.
This year, Easter has been a particularly busy time with people eager to head off for long-delayed holidays; it is a pity that larger audiences were unable to enjoy what was an outstanding series of performances. Those who were present showed their appreciation enthusiastically, many standing to applaud a memorable achievement.
Heather Leviston reviewed Melbourne Bach Choir’s Easter Festival of Bach’s “St John Passion”, the Solo violin recital by Rachael Beesley, and Handel’s “Messiah”, performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 7, 8 and 9, 2023.