Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Counterpoint Choir Sing Bach's St John Passion Exeter Cathedral Saturday 9 April

'The Betrayal of Judas and the Arrest of Christ', Ugolino Di Nerio, Sienna, 1325

On Saturday night an Exeter audience enjoyed a very special performance that they had been looking forward to for the past two months.  In the perfect setting of Exeter Cathedral, Bach's glorious 'St John Passion', performed by the Counterpoint Choir and Divertimento Orchestra, was everything we expected - thrilling, emotional and beautiful.

Professor George Pratt takes his place at the chamber organ
(Chris Watson, front left, prepares to sing 'Evangelist')
Ann is standing just behind George

(Barbara Degener plays 'cello)

The performers on Saturday included several new (but familiar) faces.  George Pratt, curator of the James Wyatt Music Room and Bryce Seede organ at Powderham Castle, was playing the chamber organ.  (An electric model - not a 'natural' sound, but very versatile.)  Greg Tassell, who recently appeared in three different English Touring Operas in one week, had several wonderful Tenor arias.  Also Ann Draisey, a soprano familiar for her performances with the Exeter Chamber Choir, made her debut in the Counterpoint choir.  What a piece for her to start with.  By her own account she absolutely loved the whole experience.

A familiar soprano - Ann Draisey
The opening chorus is always an amazing experience and the choir gave a magnificent performance.  After the deceptively gentle opening by Brenda Willoughby's Divertimento ensemble, the opening line exploded with all the intense emotion of Bach's fervent belief in Christian redemption.  "Herr unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist!" ("Lord, our Master, whose glory is unsurpassed in all the world!") Rings in the ears as it is repeated over and over, voice after voice coming in an almost endless fugue.  But then it does eventually wind to a natural close - only to begin again from the beginning to amazing effect.  The opening chorus alone was utterly breathtaking!

After a perfect opening the narrative was taken up by the incredibly expressive tenor voice of Christopher Watson.  Although the other soloists stood to the front or on staging (even in the pulpit) to sing, Chris sat with the orchestra and stood unobtrusively to sing the words of the St John Gospel.  His German was superb and every word crystal clear.  Even we lesser mortals, who struggled with school German, could follow him easily.  What made this performance doubly impressive was that Chris travelled across country to perform the equally challenging, and totally different, 'St Matthew Passion' the very next night!

Each aria and chorus was as intensely beautiful as the last.  Soprano Mary Bevan took the familiar "Ich folge dir gleichfals mit freudigen Schritten" ("I follow you likewise with joyful steps") to new heights, with celestial flute accompaniment by Melanie Orriss.  Greg Tassell initially had only a short line as a 'servant' and it seemed that this would be his only contribution.  Not at all!  Greg's aria, opening the second half of the performance, was a beautiful demonstration of his youthful tenor voice.  Bass Stuart Young, as Christ, was wonderfully restrained, imperious and humble in just the right proportions.  He also had a wonderful aria just before the interval - with the delightful addition of very accomplished 'cello pizzicato by Barbara Degener.  And, as we have to come to expect at Counterpoint performances, there was an incredible counter-tenor aria - this time by Jonathan Peter Kenny, a very moving moment.

The soloists L-R
Stuart Young  (next to David Acres), Greg Tassell, ChrisWatson
foreground: Jonathan Peter Kenny congratualtes Mary Bevan
Brenda Willoughby, Leader of the Divertimento Orchestra,
is standing behind Stuart Young)
As each recitative and aria gave way to the chorus, the Counterpoint choir swept everyone up in the emotion of their singing.  It was hard to tell whether they or the audience were more affected.  The chorus of rejection, "Keuzige ihn!" ("Crucify him!"), which Ann Draisy particular mentioned on the radio on Tuesday, was intense as a pistol shot - and almost as devastating!  As with the opening, the last words were left to the Chorus: "Herr Jusu Christ, erhore mich, ich will dich preisen ewiglich!" ("Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, I shall praise you eternally!")

Two months after their wonderful collection of works by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd at Buckfast Abbey on 12 February,  Counterpoint have taken music in Devon yet further, bringing their delightful singing talent to the musical genius and spiritual extremes of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Many thanks to all concerned, in particular Brenda Willoughby and the Divertimento ensemble, and especially to the founder and conductor of the Counterpoint choir, David Acres.

For their next Concert, Counterpoint return to Buckfast Abbey:

Counterpoint Choir
Buckfast Abbey Saturday 25 June 7.30pm
Requiem for James II
(last Catholic King of England)
Duarte Lobo: Requiem
and music by Blow, Caldara Gibbons, Lobo,
Lotti Padilla, Purcell, Ramsey, Tomkins, Weelkes
Tickets: £10 (£8 in advance - booking advised)
Box: 490398

- James II (1633-1701) ruled 1685-88
   Sir Godfrey Kneller 1685

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