THOMAS HOBBS AND FRIENDS BRING VOCAL WONDER TO THE FESTIVAL’S CLOSING ST. JOHN PASSION
Gli Angeli Genève [Jenny Högström, Aleksandra Lewondoska (sopranos), Thomas Hobbs, Robert Getchell (tenors), Stephan MacLeod (bass/director)]; Alex Potter (countertenor), Sumner Thompson (baritone): Vancouver Cantata Singers (dir. By Paula Kremer), Pacific Baroque Orchestra/ Alexander Weimann, Chan Centre, August 11, 2017.
The second week of the 2017 Vancouver Bach Festival moved intriguingly far afield with ‘The Fountains of Israel’ by Johann Schein (1586-1630) and a concert of Latin American Baroque before closing with core Bach, the Saint John Passion. There was a good feeling of communal summing-up in this final concert, since all the soloists of Gli Angeli Genève (who performed the Schein) and countertenor Alex Potter (who had given a solo recital) stayed around to participate alongside Vancouver’s 40-strong Cantata Singers. And participate they did: this was some of the finest solo singing I have witnessed in a good while, led by the wonderfully fluid and deeply-felt Evangelist of Thomas Hobbs. Hobbs and Gli Angeli’s leader, bass Stephan MacLeod, seemed to inspire their cohorts to singing of great depth and synergy – and this left a supreme mark on the whole.
There are few more demanding parts than this particular Evangelist role, but Hobbs really made it his own, bringing a wonderfully flexibility and poignancy to the narrative. Some might find his voice on the light side, but his ability to move into his falsetto so seamlessly and imaginatively brought an intimacy that was absolutely delightful. Yet this is not to say that Hobbs lacked power or decisiveness: his selective dramatic explorations in the lower register were also fully impressive and moving. And he maintained a sterling continuity and expressive power throughout. Stephan MacLeod’s rich, imposing, yet fluid characterization of Pilate seemed to match perfectly with Hobbs’ lyricism – a clear advantage of employing soloists all drawn from one ensemble. Baritone Sumner Thompson has not always had the best of times here, but his Jesus came out with impressive character and animation. Countertenor Alex Potter spun out his lines with a beautifully-airy spontaneity. Tenor Robert Getchell and the two distinguished sopranos, Jenny Högström and Aleksandra Lewondoska, also proved their mettle in the subsidiary parts. I was impressed with the sheer dramatic range of all this singing.
Conductor Alexander Weimann is no stranger to the St. John Passion, releasing a strongly-praised recording (based on a live Montreal festival performance in 2010) on ATMA in 2012. Stephan MacLeod also appeared then, a decade after the singer’s recording with Masaaki Suzuki. Nonetheless, this earlier venture was very much an echt-authentic performance where only 14 vocalists total were involved. The chorus of 40 in the current performance, combined with a marginally larger Pacific Baroque Orchestra, inevitably made for a different challenge. While Maestro Weimann can always be counted on a finely disciplined and integrated traversal of the score, on this occasion it seemingly took a fair time for the orchestra and the chorus to completely mesh with the sensitivity of the soloists.
The thrusting, propelled strings and explosive choral statement at the opening of the Part I certainly set a more extrovert tone than his previous rendering. Nonetheless, while potentially justified by the ‘majestic passion’ of the text – and exciting enough on its own terms – the demonstrative fervour seemed to draw away from the equally-important ‘celestial’ dimension of the work that opens out through the teasing, mysterious dissonances in the winds, and serves as a unifying force. The wind line was actually difficult to hear sometimes. A much deeper resonance was achieved as soon as the soloists took hold of the proceedings yet the subsequent participation of the chorus, while certainly capable, did not fully reinforce the suspension and flow of the music. The choruses of Part I had a slightly generic feel: energetic, but projected in a ‘flat’ way without much tonal layering or expressive reach. The Chorales also seemed somewhat on the antiseptic side, fairly exact, but not finding enough real repose or emotional feeling. There was often precision and emphasis on display, but also a hint of emotional neutrality. And this characteristic carried on to the opening of Part II as well.
While this was a notable limitation of the performance, there can be little doubt that Thomas Hobbs and his distinguished cohorts carried the work and carried the day, producing a disarming and unstoppable flow of vocal beauty and synergy. Furthermore, by the closing ten numbers of Part II – starting from the viola da gamba/cello sequence – a much greater sense of spiritual integration and glow overtook the whole, with both the choir and the orchestra relaxing more fully into the music’s expression and contemplative depth. Of course, this is how it must be: the wonderfully-moving arias and recitatives, the innovative use of instrumentation and soloists, and the tender closing chorales constitute a remarkable stream of beauty and genius. The ending certainly had the right sense of resolution and emotional gravitas. The Vancouver Cantata Singers are a fine group, and it was nice to see their full expressive sensitivity at the conclusion. I am tempted to think that a second performance might allow the choir and orchestra to remove some of their rigidity and self-consciousness early on. It would be impossible to underplay the absolutely wondrous vocal delights of this final evening, crowning the most enterprising two weeks of summer music-making that Early Music Vancouver has yet given us.
© Geoffrey Newman 2017