St. John Passion, J.S. Bach
Sunday, 25th March 2017, reviewed by D. Hugh Macdonald.
50 years into the early music revival, any conductor performing a major work by Bach has first to deal with a deluge of questions about how he/she is going to realise the score with the musicians under his direction. How many voices to a part? Trebles in the Chorales? Which edition? .. the list is endless. The performance offered by Kevin Duggan directing the Rosenethe Singers last Sunday evening managed to effectively embrace tradition - but this satisfying performance was never in any way routine.
The Choir have had something of a musical new beginning since the arrival of Mr Duggan, which can be expressed in one word - engagement. In this performance the choral contributions were not a comfortable painted backcloth to the unfolding drama but a "chorus of characters" bursting to exclaim (sometimes in as little as 4 bars) their direct involvement in the narrative. In such moments the choir sang with an almost operatic intensity, which, under Duggan's direction, never disrespected baroque sensibility. A balancing act.. and a good one! The singing during the Chorales was full of light and shade and effective verbal expression which contrasted and complimented the rhythmically alert "crowd scenes" beautifully. A performance of this standard highlights that there must have been consistent concentrated work undertaken during the rehearsal period to arrive at such a depth of detail. A performance to be proud of, and a major success for Mr Duggan.
The Choir were supported by their regular partners The Scottish Bach Players under Angus Ramsay whose contribution was noteworthy and included some beautiful obligati during the evening's performance. Special mention must be made of the very skilled "basse continue" players who managed to be responsive to the solo singers during those miles of secco recitatives while never dominating musically. The balanced integration between singers and continuo was for me one of the major delights of this performance.
The soloists - Susan Hamilton, Soprano, Cheryl Forbes, Alto, Simon Oberst, Bass and Stewart Kempster, Bass, contributed greatly to the performance whether as protagonists or commentators on the drama and its spiritual implications, and the choir are no doubt grateful to Susan Hamilton for standing in at short notice and whose voice continues to delight. I would single out the beautifully resonant Bass voice of Stewart Kempster who brought a calm intensity and natural authority to his role as Christ.
Andrew Dickinson delivered in the complex and high tessitura role of the Evangelist and the Rosenethe should be delighted at its involvement in his continuing career. My ears detect that Dickinson now finds himself in the driving seat of an operatic tenor voice (bigger and richer than the less powerful choral scholar timbre of the past). Given this growing horsepower, a new and exciting repertoire lies ahead for him.
Early Music practice is evolving all the time, and now a third generation of musicians have a wealth of performance-based research upon which to draw - to fill in the blanks, so to speak. There is a performance tradition of having the Evangelist placed above the action in his own little sound world. Early Music practice seems to be liberating him down onto the concert platform - nearer to his all-important continuo support. There is also a growing practice involving the use of either a Theorbo, Bass Lute or Baroque Guitar within the Continuo group which the Rosenethe might wish to embrace, together with the (now obligatory) use of a countertenor/haute-contre as solo voice in this repertoire. Choices, perhaps, for the future.
One thing is clear from the Rosenethe's debut performance under Kevin Duggan - the future of the Rosenethe is in very skilled hands.