Concert review by Robin Gregory:
Eastbourne and district is well-provided with choral societies, and most achieve very high standards. One such, which never disappoints, is technically from Hailsham, but many of its members live in the town. Their Secretary, for example, dwells within a stone’s-throw of the the welcoming church (All Saints) chosen as the venue for their performance of Bach’s St John Passion on Saturday 17th March 2018.
This masterpiece is, without question, one of the most challenging choral works in the repertoire. First one must decide whether to use an English translation or the German original. Then one must decide what “accompaniment” to provide: large orchestra, small orchestra (preferably baroque in stye), or organ? The director/conductor must find six soloists who are capable of bringing-off their demanding parts.
It all came together most excitingly in this Hailsham/Eastbourne presentation. Jozik Kotz opted for the original German, and provided a printed English translation in addition to a fine “normal” programme giving historical background, details of the soloists, and so on. The relatively small baroque orchestra, though un-named, proved to be superb, under their Leader Julia Bishop. The flutes, for example, when accompanying soprano Bethany Partridge in the aria “Ich folge” (“I follow you with joyful steps”), provided a perfect rippling cushion for this young soloist’s exquisite performance.
Seldom have I been so impressed with the overall standard of solo singing. (And I speak as one who has written and presented some fifty programmes about great singers on Radio Two.) The crucial performance of Jesus, for example, found John Hancorn stepping from his usual role as conductor/director, and thus reminding us just what a fine baritone he is. Equally in command of his part was baritone Daniel Jordan, whose day-job is Director of Music at Eastbourne College. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Leggett is already well established having won the Elisabeth Schumann Lieder Competition in 2016, and it was thrilling to see and hear a fine career blossoming before one’s eyes and ears.
The wonder-of-wonders among the soloists, however, was tenor Nick Pritchard, who sang the Evangelist part with insight and command, without need of an open score. Owing to the indisposition of lyric tenor Paul Austin Kelly, Nick readily sang both parts, wisely distinguishing which part he was singing on each occasion by moving from his “onstage” position to an alternative “in among the onlookers” stance when he was no longer Evangelist. It was a fine example of professional generosity.
All this would have meant little had the members of the choir (or the conductor) not been up to their tasks. They certainly were, however, from the quiet opening orchestral music, and from the singers’ dramatic first entry on “Herr, unser Herrscher”. And that command never flagged. They looked good in their red and black, and the choir even provided four additional soloists in Rachel Chilton (soprano, as the maid), Marcus Haddow and Robert Wicks (tenors, as servants), and Graham Keeley (bass, as Peter who denied Christ thrice). This “strength in depth” was further illustrated by the presence at the chamber organ of Colin Hughes, their regular pianist at rehearsals. Colin is one of those musicians every conductor needs to know. He plays several instruments, and I even espied him carrying a violin during the evening: though I never spotted why.
So that was a 100% success. The undoubted hard work paid off in confident, accurate and moving music-making. Yet, behind it all, the horror of Christ’s death on the cross was made manifest in Bach’s great music. An evening to remember, for sure.