’Tisn’t the season to be jolly! Lent means Bach Passions and the Hanover Band and Chorus have been touring the St John, winding up in the wood-lined warmth of Kings Place. It’s a space that is kind to the burnished warmth of period instruments and the piquant rustle of Alastair Ross’ harpsichord. 

Simon Wall’s Evangelist was the centrepiece of the work, and he offered a driven, engaged delivery of the text that avoided the usual pitfalls of tension sagging outside the wild choruses of the second half. He was never businesslike, though, with superb detailing in the final sequences, which wind down the action, and indulgent word-painting on “weinete bitterlich” in Part One (other examples abounded). This keening singing was creamy and even across the whole register. 

But some of this forward movement was dissipated by the placement of the singers, the Evangelist squashed into the back corner stage right, and Christus opposite. The urgency of Wall’s delivery was lost thereby, and both he and Christus felt like bystanders in their own story. Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus – a riveting interlocking of recitative, chorus, aria, action and reaction – saw Edward Price singing out into the auditorium, with Christus behind him. You’re not going to get much out of him like that! Dramatic flat-footedness can be a feature of more formal concert presentations of both Bach passions, and is a problem of convention rather than individual performers, but efforts must be made to keep the piece taut, not least in light of vivid recent realisations of the pieces from, say, Peter Sellars and James Conway. 

The real excitement came from superb chorus work: several explosive “Kreuzige!”, jabbing counterpoint and a dizzying, ironic, lightness of touch as the soldiers divide up Jesus’ clothes. The opening and closing choruses were carefully crafted in their shapes and structure, conductor Andrew Arthur offering a great tour of the music’s architecture. The chorales, which can all too often lapse into “And now a message from our sponsor” humdrum, had distinctive textures, weights and tempi, with key words carefully shaded and underlined. 

Alexander Ashworth offered a regal Christus, with otherworldly softness in the tender moments and prophetic strength when explaining, so to speak, to Pilate the nature of his visitation to this plane. Edward Price sang the bass solos and Pilate, rich and nimble in equal measure in the jagged coloratura of “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen”. Soprano Philippa Hyde offered nimble and poised music-making in the heartbreak of “Zerfließe, mein Herze”, especially in her diverse iterations of “Dein Jesus ist tot”. 

Peter Davoren shone in the tenor solos: “Ach, mein Sinn” was darkly-coloured and hummed with existential despair; “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”, by comparison, was lighter, more flexible and gently coloured, as befits its visionary character. Alto solos belonged to a buttery Timothy Morgan, whose voice is on the lighter side, but whose grief was poised, bringing out the paradoxes of “Es ist vollbracht”. 

Arthur led from the chamber organ, but was at his best when strictly conducting a chorus arrayed in heavenly rows above the stage. The Hanover Band, lead by Theresa Caudle (who turned to the viola d’amore for a couple of exquisite solos), was as crisp and incisive as one could hope. Oboes snaked and squeezed in “Von den stricken meiner Sünden”; Joanne Levine’s viola da gamba was artfully understated in the plangent rhetoric of “Es ist vollbracht”. One of many delightful touches was the slow bleed of the final low E flat in “Betrachte, meine Seel”, an open wound from the cello. It is the second performance of the piece I have seen this season that eschewed the lute, which robs two key arias of some of Bach’s most fabulous textures. Perhaps there’s a run on lutenists at this time of year. 

This is music which thrives on risks, dramatic and musical, so as to push the audience onto the work’s challenging emotional and moral terrain. This performance could have done with a few more, but the sheer competence and detailing are not to be taken for granted either.

***11