St John Passion | Leipzig Thomanerchor and MSOLeft - Leipzig Thomanerchor. Photo - Gert Mothes

The Thomanerchor (Thomaner Choir) of the Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, where J.S. Bach worked during the last part of his life, is in Victoria giving concerts in both CBD and Geelong. This group of young boys is the latest generation of a tradition which started in 1212, only half a century after the first foundations of the German town of Leipzig were laid. The choir has been instrumental in cultivating musical culture and education in Germany. Today it is a cultural landmark and, since 1920, an ambassador of the work of J.S. Bach and their home city all over the world. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has composed an ensemble of singers and musicians which together with the Thomaner boys are presenting J.S. Bach’s St John Passion - a masterpiece rarely heard in Australia.

St John Passion was composed at the beginning of J.S. Bach’s residence in Leipzig and performed on Good Friday 1724. It is also the earliest extant passion of J.S. Bach and the passion that preceded the well-known St Matthew Passion. The storyline follows Martin Luther’s translation of St John’s Gospel, 18 and 19, two excerpts from the Gospel of St Matthew and additional texts from contemporary versions of the passion, presenting the events leading to the death of Jesus. The focus in this work is multidimensional. The highly symbolic narrative comes to life through the most ingenious musical structures, textures, sonorities, musical figuration and declamation in recitative, aria, hymns, choruses and instrumental music.

The choir plays a variety of prominent parts: the condemning crowd, the commentator and the devotee. The purity and harmony of the Thomaner boys’ singing voiced these roles to perfection and at the same time embodied the unity of the primary life source as the substratum of the inner struggle on the path to truth. The music expresses the contrasts of fear and devotion, wrongdoing and right living as well as anguish, distress, misery, torment, physical pain and affliction - processes which every human heart goes through. Yet, J.S. Bach emphasises more the cleansing properties of these experiences – the wisdom, surrender and peace which Jesus exemplified so profoundly.

Oleg Caetani led a chamber orchestra, the soloists and the Thomanerchor with sensibility and deep understanding of this great work. The soloists elated the listener with attractive voices, capable of executing Bach’s arduous phrasing. The international stars Timothy Robinson (Evangelist), Stephan Loges (Christ) and Matthew Brook (Pilate) had notable superiority with their command of the German language and interpretative maturity over the Australian singers Rachelle Durkin (Soprano), Renée Martin (Mezzo-Soprano) and James Egglestone (Tenor). Timothy Robinson related the drama through recitative using all possible inflections of his voice with an inner aura of utter humility. The strength of Stephan Loges’ baritone represented truthfully Christ. Matthew Brook’s arias were rare gems of poignant phrasing rested in dramatic accuracy.
 
The hall was full and blessed with the presence of the most prominent Australian living music patron, Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, whose name it carries. The audience followed text and musical narrative with fervour. Even the darkest moments were transported to the sublime. The last chorus of majestic affirmation just took their breath away. Only rapturous waves of applause could confirm that this was a rare and exceptional performance. What a better way to celebrate the Thomaner tradition, Bach’s 324th birthday on March 21 and the approaching Holy Week but by living through the cathartic experience of the passion of Christ amongst angelic voices and sounds!


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Thomanerchor
ST JOHN PASSION
JS Bach

Conductor Oleg Caetani

Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Dates/Times: Thursday 19 March at 8pm, Saturday 21 March, 6.30pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster on 1300 136 166 or mso.com.au

Venue: Deakin University, Costa Hall, Geelong
Date/Time: Friday 20 March at 8pm
Bookings: 5225 1200

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