Academy Choir: St John Passion

Bach: St John Passion
Academy Choir & Baroque Players, Matthew Best
St John’s, Wimbledon, 12 March 2022

Choral societies have a long and noble tradition in the UK. They provide much-needed employment opportunities for the young professional musicians brought in as soloists as well as giving the opportunity to perform for the vast body of amateur singers whose membership fees keep the shows on the road. The Academy Choir is one such. It was founded in Wimbledon in 1980 and since 2000 has been based at the church of St John the Baptist, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon. It is an auditioned choir, rather than taking all-comers, and the musical standards are obviously high. Since 2017 their musical director has been Matthew Best. My invitation to review their performance of the St John Passion promised that “our concerts tend to be ‘a cut above’ what might typically be expected to be found in a suburban church, given by a local choir”, a claim that proved itself correct.

The first ‘cut above’ was the quality of the orchestra and vocal soloists. Under the leadership of the distinguished violinist Alison Bury, founder member and leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Academy Baroque Players gathered together an excellent group of instrumentists, all recognisable from their appearances with leading period instrument orchestras. Key amongst them were the continuo group of Andrew Skidmore & Alastair Ross, cello and organ, with additional support from Val Botwright, bass, Kinga Gáborjáni, cello and viola da gamba soloist, and Eligio Luis Quinteiro, lute. Principle soloists were Rachel Stott & Henrietta Wayne, viola d’amore, Rachel Beckett & Christine Garratt, flutes, and Katharine Spreckelsen & Sarah Humphries, oboes.

Far from the usual young student or post-graduate solo singers usually booked by choral societies, the six vocal soloists were well-established professionals of considerable standing. Nick Pritchard was the evangelist, his communicative approach to the text (sung from memory) brought the story to life, helped by his position next to the continuo group between the players and choir. Edward Grint sang the role of Jesus with James Newby as Pilate, the intense debate between them strengthened by their positioning on a long diagonal, with Pilate in the pulpit and Jesus on the opposite side of the orchestra. Rowan Pierce, Hugh Cutting and Ed Lyon were the other soloists, all excellent.

Matthew Best’s direction was inspiring. His engagement with the music and the musicians led to a performance of considerable power, both acoustic and emotional. His timing of the links between the recitatives and the chorus was exceptionally well handled, retaining the momentum of the story. As for the Academy Choir, they certainly kept up to the promised ‘cut above’ standard. Although a choir of 42 singers is large for historically informed performances of Bach, their disciplined and well-coordinated approach to consort singing, combined with their clean-toned vocal style, led to a performance that was one of the best I have heard.

Appropriately, the evening started with the choir singing Mykola Lysenko’s 1885 Prayer for Ukraine, sung at the close of the liturgy in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches in Ukraine. It segued straight into the stirring opening instrumental introduction to the St John Passion before we had the chance to ponder why the “Lord, great and mighty” had done so little to “protect our beloved Ukraine”.