As the events of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter were drawing near I thought it might be an idea to see what Congleton Choral Society had to offer with their performance of St John Passion at Congleton Town Hall.
From the very beginning of the performance there was a special sense of atmosphere, matching the events of the gospel story as we journeyed through it. At this time of year one might read the story but listening and watching singers, soloists and orchestra become part of it raised the whole experience to a new level.
|The Taking of Christ - Caravaggio 1602|
The Northern Baroque Sinfonia maintained a delicate balance throughout, sufficient to support and enhance the vocalists' own performances though never too much.
Every bar of the music told us something new about Jesus and the characters surrounding him including, of course, the crowd, where we might find ourselves standing today, worshipping one minute and shouting 'away with Him, crucify Him!' very soon afterwards.
The soloists guided us through the passion story, creating a very poignant atmosphere through both song, and silence surrounding the song. Tenor soloist Jonathan Cooke (Evangelist) narrated expressively the gospel facts and feelings as the Passion Story progressed.
Mezzo Soprano Laura Margaret Smith was the first to offer us a glimmer of hope and a sense of Easter victory that would begin with Christ's Crucifixion. 'From the bondage of iniquity that ever binds me, my Redeemer sets me free. From the evils that immure me, fully He'll cure me by His death upon the tree.'
There was tension throughout the hall as the story moved steadily towards the climax of the Crucifixion, heralded by disparate but very clear, quiet voices from soloists within the choir as though representing all we listeners, wondering where to go for salvation during weary and dreary times. 'Haste. O where? Haste to Golgotha!'
Bass Baritone Thomas Stoddart (Christus) entered fully into the part of Jesus, telling us something more about him throughout every phrase of music. He fought the end with a loud shout 'I thirst.' A moment later the victory was about to be won. 'It is fulfilled' was in direct contrast - a whisper.
Soprano Aimee Toshney shared with us the deepest of emotions, singing the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, after seeing him die: 'O heart, melt in weeping, with tears overflowing; your homage bestowing. Reveal to the world every feeling of pain; thy Jesus is slain.'
After each solo performance, the choir followed on seamlessly with their own music, participating in mind, body and spirit. Watching them was often equally as powerful as listening, bringing me a very strong feeling that every singer, whether soloist or choir member, had contributed individually as well as a team member to the power of this life-changing story. Words and music flowed towards us; one and all the singers were completely focussed upon conductor Christopher Cromar, whose sensitive direction enabled greater power to come from the choir, who flew powerfully and with tremendous energy through words and music at the most dramatic points of the story surrounding the crucifixion.
After Jesus had gone we began the waiting time before the Resurrection. The last great chorus 'Sleep well, and rest in God's safekeeping, who makes an end of all our weeping', followed by the final Chorale hailing the risen Christ, were an electrifying affirmation of faith and hope. Such an experience was completely new to me during a performance of this mighty work: the tense silence created by conductor, soloists, orchestra and singers embraced us all. The composer spoke to us then, and now leaves us to wait for Easter.