Review: Bach St John Passion, St Peter’s Singers, National Festival Orchestra, Leeds Minster, Good Friday, 29th March 2024

THE Good Friday concert of a major devotional work is a century-old tradition at Leeds Minster, known until 2012 as Leeds Parish Church. The St John Passion was last performed by St Peter’s Singers in this famous church on Good Friday, 2019. Dr Simon Lindley, legendary Master of the Music at Leeds Minster from 1975-2015 conducted.

I have now savoured two fine performances of the St John Passion, in Otley and Leeds. Both were sung in an English translation by Neil Jenkins. The experience of hearing the momentous events recounted and sung in the language of the audience felt all the more moving

The St John Passion is a setting of the story, as related in the Gospel according to St John and first performed on Good Friday, 7th April 1724.

The extravagant dramatic style of the St John Passion had strained Bach’s relationship with his employers, the music council of St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig. Hence the work’s premiere in Leipzig’s Church of St Nicholas.

Good Friday’s deeply felt performance was conducted by Alexander Woodrow; since 2020, Director of Music at Leeds Minster and conductor of St Peter’s Singers since 2022.

Those dramatic qualities were abundant in the ringing clarity of the tenor Toby Ward’s narration as the Evangelist and the nobility of bass baritone Phil Wilcox as Jesus. A broad spectrum of colours drawn by Alex Woodrow from the forty blended voices of St Peter’s Singers was, at times breathtaking. The focused energy of these voices was at its most chilling as a fanatical mob demanding the crucifixion of Jesus.

Solo arias, sung by members of St Peter’s Singers, choruses and chorales underpinned by the excellent National Festival Orchestra with continuo players Sally Ladds (cello) and Shaun Turnbull (chamber organ) were masterfully integrated by Alex Woodrow. Though it would have been great to hear the Minster’s mighty organ (rather than the chamber organ) accompany some of the chorales.