St John Passion
St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield
In medieval times, miracles were often ascribed to the healing power of the priory at St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church. Founded in the twelfth century, this is a glorious Romanesque edifice which many film-makers have pressed into service: Four Weddings and Shakespeare in Love were shot there, and T-Mobile used it as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey in a royal wedding advertisement.
So it’s fitting that it should be the launch-pad for a new period-performance band enigmatically titled Figure and led by a multi-instrumentalist with eclectic musical tastes. ‘Anything which would have been originally performed on gut strings is our domain,’ conductor Frederick Waxman told the Camden New Journal. ‘Our aims are to bring music of the past to life through the modern understanding of the instruments of its time, as well as championing talented young musicians.’
The church was packed for their inaugural concert, Bach’s St John Passion, with a chorus of 18 and a brilliant line-up of soloists. The opening bars of the overture were uncertain, as the instrumentalists got the measure of each other and of the acoustic of the church – it didn’t come over like the perfectly-oiled machine it should – but the choral shout which followed raised the hairs on the back of the neck.
And in this enchanted space the work took wing, with singers and players magnificently delivering its climactic moments of terror and joy. Among the instrumentalists two stood out – oboist Leo Duarte, and Miriam Nohl on the viola da gamba, whose solo in ‘Es ist vollbracht’ was exquisite. In Richard Robbins and Tristan Hambleton we got an excellent Evangelist and Jesus, while Claire Lees brought a lustrous sweetness to the soprano arias. The biggest vocal spells were cast by dark-toned mezzo Emily Gray, and by tenor Hugo Hymas, whose electrifying sound seemed to be powered by a holy ecstasy. The whole performance had thrilling immediacy. Let’s hope it now gets recorded.