Is it just me, or are Passion performances suddenly back in vogue? There was Michael Sheen’s celebrated version in Port Talbot and this year there is a Passion in Trafalgar Square. The Union Chapel in Islington has also got in on the act with the People’s Passion: a version of Bach’s St John Passion in English for Good Friday, sung by Highbury choir Eclectic Voices (directed by Scott Stroman) and the Sweelinck Ensemble.
I sang the St John Passion for the first time last year with my own choir, Collegium Musicum of London, as part of the St Stephen’s festival in Kensington. It’s a gruelling piece – even in the first chorus there’s no let-up, and the long lines of quavers means it’s really easy to gallop ahead of the band. You need to concentrate a lot.
This gig was determinedly congregational. All the chapel hymn-singing I did in my childhood means I’m an absolute sucker for a chorale, and the tone was set by the fact that the entire audience had to stand and sing the wonderful Hassler/Bach hymn O Sacred Head before the start of the performance. In this context it was absolutely the right decision to sing the Passion in English; after all, Bach himself composed in the vernacular. The original 1954 translation by Imogen Holst was refined by Peter Pears with Holst’s help, as Pears thought the English text not singable enough. The woman next to me had brought along her own score, but it was in German. I don’t know what she made of it.
Anyway, I enjoyed it hugely and had to stop myself from trying to hum along with the alto line on the chorales, which Scott Stroman took at quite a lick. That surprised me for about five seconds, but it meant the pace never flagged. A good lively choir and a splendid performance by Aidan Coburn in the punishing role of the Evangelist (and perfect diction, too) rounded everything off. As the light faded on Good Friday afternoon and the last chorale came to an end, it felt like a properly communal experience. I think Johann Sebastian would have approved.