Ian Stuart-Hunter St John’s Kirk, Perth – 16 April 2014
The hottest ticket in Perth was one for the Dunedin Consort’s performance of J.S.Bach’s St John Passion. Even before the doors of St John’s Kirk had opened there were more than eighty people waiting to get in and well before the start main aisle and transepts were filled. With the leadership both academic and enthusiastic of John Butt, the Dunedin Consort are not only Scotland’s leading authenticist group, they fill everything with vitality. So it was that nearly a year and a month after they had last performed their liturgical reconstruction of Bach’s Johannes-Passion, they were back in Perth doing the same piece of historical revivification. Yet it wasn’t – it was totally new and equally alive. A big change was the hugely more dramatic element, coming over most obviously in the way tenor Thomas Walker viewed his major part as Evangelist. Right from the start he was brilliant at colouring: you felt the word ‘verriet’ (betrayed) from his very first recitative, and ‘verleugnete’ from Peter denying Christ. Though enlivening the recitatives this became a little too much in his Arias. Under John Butt’s direction the Trial Scene of Part Two had tremendous sweep and was more vitally wild and dramatic than any opera. Equally excellent and a foil to this was the expressive calm and gravity of bass Jonathan Sells, starting as a youthful and vulnerable Jesus, developing in stature. The musicians of the Dunedin Consort played their dramatic part, too: baleful wind giving an air of urgency and doom to the opening, with soloists and ripienists giving drive to the opening chorus, their eight voices having focus and power. As soloists in the obligato instruments for Arias flutes, oboes, oboe d’amore and two violinists all played peerlessly. A minor element, which did not work, was seeding the audience with people to join in with some of the chorales. There was a tentative start with mumbled school assembly singing, and a few confidently out of tune singers, spoiling these parts of the Passion where the audience is meant to feel at home with the work. Soprano Joanne Lunn was an object lesson in beautiful and expressive singing: ‘freudig’ (joyfully) giving a lift to Ich folge dir gleichfalls, countering in Zerfließe, mein Herze with a voice that spoke purely and directly of pain. Margot Oitzinger’s warm alto was distinctive in Von den Stricken, with good ornamentation in the da capo, and the sustained tone of despair in Es ist vollbracht with its sudden change to triumph. Overall, it was indeed a triumph: a magnificent performance of a great piece, done with thoroughness of research, brought to vivid life by performers of conviction and ability.