sat 18/11/2017

Prom 12: Bach St John Passion, Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Norrington | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 12: Bach St John Passion, Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Norrington

Prom 12: Bach St John Passion, Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Norrington

Swiss orchestra and choir bring radiance to the Royal Albert Hall

Sir Roger Norrington conducts Bach’s St John Passion at the PromsAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Sir Roger Norrington, 80 this year, produced a masterful St John Passion in the first of his two appearances at this year’s Proms, built around his excellent Swiss chamber orchestra and the Zürcher Sing-Akademie.

Predictably, one of the main highlights was tenor James Gilchrist (pictured below). He hasn’t become a one-man Evangelist industry by chance: the ringing tone, faultless diction and projection are his stock-in-trade, but the magic lies in the subtlety of his delivery and master storyteller’s engagement with the text. The distaste when Jesus is struck by the officers; the shivers of Peter warming himself by the fire; the heaving sobs when he realises his denial; sensitivity and detail everywhere. It was a mesmerising performance.

Neal Davies’ authoritative Christ was joined by a strong team of soloists. Tenor Joshua Ellicott, bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and soprano Lucy Crowe each brought focus and engagement to their arias, with Crowe’s lilting "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" a particular highlight. Countertenor Clint van der Linde’s somewhat covered tone contrasted with the more strident voices around him but he was not to be overshadowed, especially for the keystone aria "Es ist vollbracht", to which he brought a very attractive lyricism. 

James Gilchrist as the Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion at the BBC Proms 2014. Photo: Chris ChristodoulouBaritone Jonathan Sells, stepping out from the Zürcher Sing-Akademie’s ranks to sing the role of Pilate, gave a sense of the calibre of the individual singers that generate the 40-piece choir’s power and flexibility. Founded only in 2011 and on its first Proms visit, it certainly impressed. It was also a reminder of the Proms’ great strength in showcasing not just the best of Britain but also providing rare opportunities to hear top international groups on these shores (that said, Sells himself and the choir’s artistic director Tim Brown are both Britons). The group’s range – and Norrington’s control of it – was perfectly illustrated in the final chorale, beginning in a tender lullaby and ending in joyful triumph (and followed by grateful applause).

The orchestra itself is a hybrid, playing on modern instruments but with gut strings and Baroque bows – a change that Norrington ushered in three years ago when he became principal conductor. One doesn’t necessarily miss the distinctive timbre of viol and violas d’amore in certain arias when the players so enthusiastically embrace the Norringtonian sensibility, and are individually such good musicians. It was a nice touch to have the obbligato parts stand to accompany the set pieces, so the impression was of chamber groups rising organically from the orchestral body, spreading their expressive wings, before sinking back into their ensemble roles.

Overall it was a richly nourishing musical experience proving that Norrington, one of the originators of the historically informed performance movement, still has plenty of energy and insight to offer.

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