The influence of Bach's Passion settings is so great that any composer taking up the form can only feel what has been called the anxiety of influence. But this version of the St. John Passion by British composer Bob Chilcott is so well thought out, and so original in dealing with the inherited material, that it will compel the admiration even of those not especially enamored of contemporary British church music and its sometimes too-sunny tone. Chilcott does not attempt to shed the Bachian models entirely, but he devises convincing contemporary equivalents for them. His setting consists of diverse elements. First are narrative passages from the King James translation of the Bible, with an evangelist describing the action and soloists and the choir taking up the words of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and the crowd demanding Jesus' head. Each of these is distinguished by its own instrumental accompaniment, and Chilcott's melodic characterizations are at once simple, flexible, and dramatically vivid. These gather in intensity as the story approaches its climax, and Chilcott is masterly here at not overplaying his hand; listeners are swept along. Second are settings of English poetry that reflect on aspects of the tale. These are older texts, dating from the middle centuries of the second millennium, and beautifully rounded out by Isaac Watts' When I survey the Wondrous Cross at the very end. Finally, in a simpler musical and textual vein, are mostly later texts that Chilcott designates hymns. These fill the role of Bach's chorales and could be sung by a congregation in performance, and it is to be hoped that the work will be performed that way; here additional choirs are deployed. The informative booklet tells readers that Chilcott, a fairly prolific composer, took a good deal of time in devising the overall structure of the work, and the care he has taken is abundantly evident. The only aspect of the performance that overshadows the fine work of the Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens, catching perfectly the various shades and flavors and historical layers in the music, is the engineering work at Wells Cathedral itself: the all-important texts are fully intelligible. Very strongly recommended.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|St. John Passion|