The motto of the Lammermuir Festival, now in its third year, is “beautiful music in beautiful places”. Few settings are more striking than St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington. The scene of John Knox’s ordination as a Catholic priest, some years before he lit the blue touch-paper of Scottish Reformation, it seemed a resonant setting for one of musical history’s Lutheran landmarks: Bach’s St John Passion.

The Dunedin Consort perform the St John Passion at St Mary's Church, Haddington
The Dunedin Consort perform the St John Passion at St Mary's Church, Haddington

There is something in the eddying instrumental introduction to the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher” which suggests that something big is unfolding, and the capacity audience remained hushed throughout. The 14 instrumentalists, including John Butt directing from the harpsichord, set the benchmark of the evening’s playing early on. Balance, clarity and ensemble were excellent throughout the performance. I found myself in agreement with my neighbour’s observation that it is very easy to end up taking the orchestra for granted as they simply “seem always to be there”.

Of course, there were many moments where individuals or pairs made their presence felt, such as the sensitive oboe obbligato by Alexandra Bellamy and Leo Duarte in the aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” or the beautifully paired flutes of Katie Bircher and Graham O’Sullivan in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”. Jonathan Manson, on cello/gamba, was exceptional. In addition to seamless continuo work, many moments of word-painting depicting scourging or the collapse of the temple, he also supplied a heart-rending obbligato in the aria “Es ist vollbracht”. Moments later this was complemented by a lovely light touch in the ornamental obbligato in “Mein teurer Heiland”.

Many regard the St John Passion as more dramatically political than the St Matthew. The halo of strings which accompanies Christ’s words in the St Matthew is entirely absent. It’s as though the focus were more on Jesus the man than the Saviour. The crowd scenes feel much angrier in the St John Passion, requiring a spirited performance from the vocalists. That the eight singers were up to this challenge was evident from their first entry. The sound was enormous. The chorales, which, in the main, offer moments of quiet reflection on the awful goings-on of the narrative, featured much more tender sonorities. A particularly beautiful example was the chorale “Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn”, which appears early in Part 2. The exquisite harmonies of the penultimate phrase were beautifully handled. In this regard I have to express my only disappointment in an otherwise perfect evening; that the programme was in English only. This ruled out syllable-by-syllable following of Bach’s artistry in word painting. Perhaps it was a necessary economy but, possibly like many who have come to languages through music, I certainly missed the linguistic dimension.

In addition to perfect intonation and balance in choral mode, the singers were outstanding soloists. Bass Robert Davies, although not technically included in the soloists due to the absence of an aria from his duties, sang the role of Pilate with rich-voiced gravitas. Soprano Joanne Lunn and alto Alex Gibson were extremely impressive – the latter in a time-stopping rendition of “Es ist vollbracht”. Two members of the cast stood out for me and, judging from audience reaction, for the majority of those present. Bass Matthew Brook, in the role of Christ, injected a note of unshrinking defiance into his exchanges with Pilate. The dramatic complexities of the trial scene, where an individual comes up against the harsh power of the (occupied) state egged on by a volatile populace, had an almost operatic feel. The highlight of Brook’s contribution was, for me, the aria “Mein teurer Heiland”. I have loved this aria since first hearing it as a teenager and this was a particularly fine rendition. The choral lines, between which the solo voice weaves, came from just offstage and this distance seemed to lend added tristesse.

The hero of the piece was tenor Nicholas Mulroy. Ever present as the Evangelist, he also participated in all the chorales and choruses and sang three solos. The most emotive of these was the tortured “Ach, mein Sinn”, which portrays Peter’s grief following denial and dereliction of friendship. I have seen Mulroy perform on a number of occasions and would contend that this was a truly special performance. I noticed that, although singing from memory, for much of the evening – even in recitative – he was turning pages without looking. This embodiment of the visual layout as well as the audio landscape of the music speaks volumes about the dedication which went into preparation.

The Dunedin Consort must have been incredibly happy with and proud of this performance. Their St Matthew Passion recording having been chosen earlier this year on BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, one can only hope that a recording of the St John Passion is in the diary.

*****