Cockermouth Harmonic Society

This monumental work tells and reflects upon the story of the betrayal, trial and death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth around 30CE.  Its source is St John’s Gospel, one of four such narratives in the New Testament.  The original story takes about 15 hours.  Bach summarised it in two hours of inspiring music.  The performance, sung in the original German, maintained the interest of the large audience throughout - at times you could hear a pin drop.

This performance was given by the Cockermouth Harmonic Society Choir, the Lonsdale Baroque Ensemble and five soloists Christopher Steele (tenor), Paul Im Thurn (Bass-Baritone), Jonathan Millican (Bass), Marion Ramsay (Mezzo-Soprano) and Julie Leavett (Soprano) - all directed from the harpsichord by Ian Thompson.

The Passion, a term meaning suffering, was written for a church service on Good Friday 1724.  It is a ‘sermon in sound’.  The gospel story works at two levels; in secular terms it is a tale of cruelty and political expediency whilst at a religious level it tells how the constancy and obedience of one man transforms the possibilities for humankind.  

During this performance it became clear to me that the Passion itself works at several levels.  St John, the storyteller, sung wonderfully by Christopher Steele, occupies the middle ground.  In the foreground are the main characters in his story, the Roman Governor Pilatus and Jesus himself projected convincingly by Jonathan Millican and Paul Im Thurn respectively.  The third level is one of contemplation, reflection and petition provided by the choir and most of the soloists in turn.  The choir also features in the foreground, particularly when the story demands a crowd baying for blood.

The performance was tight, well balanced and full of pace.  I loved the duet between the viola and Marion Ramsay in the Aria ‘It is accomplished’, beautifully played and sung, sad and poignant.  Julie Leavett’s voice soared during the Air ‘Dissolve then heart in floods of tears’ following Jesus’ death.  

Bach included ten Chorales based on sixteenth and seventeenth century tunes. ‘Who has hit you like this’ made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The rich harmonies of ‘May your name and cross alone’ were beautifully rendered by the choir.  This tune is still in use for the hymn ‘All Glory Laud and Honour’.

The Passion ends with a petition to be awakened from death to see Jesus in joy.  Even if you do not share Bach’s piety and devotion, his sacred oratorio is ambitious and glorious.  When it was all over there was silence and, as Ian Thompson visibly relaxed, well-deserved applause.

Martyn Evans

J S Bach - St John Passion,

 Christ Church 12 April, 2014

2014 April Concert