Monday, 7 April 2014


Singapore Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (4 April 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 April 2014 with the title "Passion concert moves hearts and souls".

Leading up to the season of Lent, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is to be lauded for not presenting an umpteenth reading of Handel’s Messiah but instead a rare performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion. First performed in Leipzig in 1724, this was the earlier of two surviving passions, a setting of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and death as told in the Gospel of John.

The passion and sacrifice of Christ are central tenets of the Christian faith. Bach was to colour the dramatic events in the most vivid and explicit musical language possible, with an aim to reinforce devotion and fervency in the believer, and instil pity and awe in everybody else. This was evangelism 18th century style, with the German composer as a most persuasive proselytiser.

Although the SSO is by no means a period performance ensemble, certain aspects of authenticity were observed by Lim Yau, Artistic Director of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, who conducted this evening. He employed a small group of strings (twelve violins, two cellos and one bass), obliggato flutes and oboes, bassoon, harpsichord, chamber organ, and a delightful surprise: viola da gamba (played by Jennifer Eriksson) and theorbo (an ancient fretted instrument strummed like a lute, played by Tommie Andersson).

The orchestral textures were light and transparent even when loudness in volume was called for. Five vocal soloists were balanced by a 90-strong choir, hand-picked from the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Hallelujah Chorus and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chamber Choir. The opening chorus Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord, Our Master) projected a rapt and gripping intensity, establishing the reverent tone from the outset.

The heavy-duty role of the Evangelist and narrator was by helmed by tenor Steve Davislim, whose clear ringing voice was a consistent pleasure. For those who do not understand German, surtitles in English were helpfully provided. Opposite him were bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering in a sympathetically portrayed, gravitas-laden Jesus, and baritone Martin Snell who commanded Pontius Pilate and the arias for low male voice.

While the triumvirate was rock solid in carrying the action, the lady soloists whose roles reflected the convictions of believers, had bit parts. Alto Lucia Cervoni’s pivotal moment was in the aria Es ist vollbacht! (It is Finished!), where the pall of death turns into triumphant victory. Soprano Nadine Lehner struggled in the highest registers of Zerfliesse, Mein Herze (Dissolve Then, My Heart), her dominance being usurped by excellent accompanying duo of flautist Evgueni Brokmiller and oboist Veda Lin Wei.

The two-hour epic was wisely performed without an interval, one which would have ruined its continuity. Tireless throughout was the chorus, which distinguished with the ability to readily switch modes and moods. The gentle chorales were “simple” reassuring affirmations of faith, contrasted with the mob scenes and hypocritical high priests, represented by “complex” chromatics and fugal passages. The fickle Jews come off badly; perhaps here also lies the roots of German anti-Semitism.

Whether believer or not, this was a well-judged performance that moved hearts and souls, not just by the music but also the care of its preparation. Surely, Bach’s greater and longer St Matthew Passion cannot be too far away in the horizon.   

Singapore Symphony Chorus soprano Patricia Teng
plays the wordless part of Mary Magdalene,
here showing some flesh and a cross
big enough to scare off vampires. 

1 comment:

Jennifer Eriksson said...

Dear Dr Chang - thank you for the considered and thoughtful review of the St John Passion. My name is Jennifer Eriksson and I was the viola da gambist in the performance and my colleague Tommie Andersson was the theorbist. We have played together for more than 25 years and have appeared in many Passions. This was a very special performance though and Lim Yau's leadership was outstanding!