Thursday, 15 November 2018

Choral society at its very best

BACH’S St John Passion pierces the emotions as its narrative charts Christ’s final hours from betrayal to burial

BACH’S St John Passion pierces the emotions as its narrative charts Christ’s final hours from betrayal to burial. It is an awesome musical journey, to which Henley Choral Society’s performance at St Mary’s Church under Musical Director Ben Goodson did total justice.

It eclipsed previous stand-out performances and I have not witnessed a more remarkable array of soloists and period instrumentalists or seen HCS so thoroughly prepared.

The orchestra, led by Bojan Cicic, was impeccable. The main continuo trio of organist, cello and lute had total empathy with the soloists: Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Giles Underwood (Jesus/bass), Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (alto) and Joshua Ellicott (tenor). Mulroy was a class act as narrator with a fabulous voice, great acting and total authority. That the soloists’ interpretations were so convincing should have been no surprise, as they all had operatic credentials. It was opera minus the set.

The marathon introductory chorus, Herr, unser Herrscher, was of the highest musical and technical quality, and as beautifully balanced as it was ominous, providing a magnificent curtain-raiser. There was an equally glorious opening chorale and chorus in Interrogation and Flagellation, which also included a well-crafted bass aria from Giles Underwood (Jesus), and, to end the section, a phenomenally expressive and emotionally charged aria sung by Joshua Ellicott, ushering in Christ’s Condemnation and Crucifixion. The final soprano aria in Burial, with sensitive woodwind accompaniment, was exceptionally poignant too, but the most moving moment came in The Death of Jesus with Clare Wilkinson’s heart-rending Es ist vollbracht! This was sheer perfection.



Bach’s Passions are punctuated by chorales, usually repeated but reworked with adventurous harmonies. Here they were all carefully engineered by Ben Goodson and exquisitely sung. His master-stroke was to have the final chorale sung in German from memory. As the scores were lowered, it was as if hearts and lungs had doubled in size. The inspired, commanding singing that followed created the perfect ending and underscored what must surely go down as Henley Choral Society’s finest hour.

Their next concert (June 20) features songs by Tippett, Brahms and Shearing, for which HCS is keen to recruit additional male singers (no auditions involved). Go to www.henleychoralsociety. org.uk, call Wendy on (01491) 572969 or come to d:two one Monday at 7.30pm.

Trevor Howell



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