Bob Chilcott: St John Passion


Chilcott’s mighty setting of words from St John’s Gospel is a dramatic yet optimistic retelling of the Passiontide story. The work combines 13th and 17th century English poetry with the King James Bible text settings and, as with Bach’s great Passion settings, the role of the Evangelist is taken by the tenor soloist, who provides a melodious narrative throughout. Including 5 well- known hymn texts set to new, original melodies, the work further confirms Chilcott’s status as one of the world’s most popular active choral composers.


What people are saying

“This is an appealing, sincere and expertly crafted score and hearing it again in this very fine recording has moved me as much as that first performance. The recorded sound is excellent” Musicweb International, March 2015

“On the evidence of this fine recording, Chilcott’s St John Passion will connect with audiences and performers.” Choir and Organ, March 2015, 

“Tautly structured.” BBC Music Magazine, October 2015

We have long known Chilcott as one of the most accessible of contemporary composers for choirs. Memorable melodies and lovely harmonisations seem to flow from his pen with ease…His Passion setting is as direct and communicative as those of Bach. MusicWeb International, April 2016

Wells Cathedral Choir
Laurie Ashworth Soprano
Ed Lyon Tenor / Evangelist
Darren Jeffery Bass-Baritone
Pilate Neal Davies Bass / Christ
Chaconne Brass
Jonathan Vaughn Organist
Matthew Owens Conductor

Release date:9th Mar 2015
Order code:SIGCD412
Barcode: 635212041222

Bob Chilcott’s compact St John Passion follows in outline Bach’s work. It opens powerfully: the chorus proclaim Christ as saviour of mankind, Chaconne Brass introducing these verses in a declamatory style. Ed Lyon sings his long role with conviction. The voice is agile, a touch monochrome at times, but the words are clear and at key moments in the drama, as in ‘The Crucifixion’, he comes into his own with some expressive singing in the upper register. Neal Davies in his portrayal of Christ has a more sombre timbre, with brass and organ lending gravity to his words. Darren Jeffery, in the passive role of Pilate, is the lighter baritone. Laurie Ashworth’s pure timbre complements the ethereal choral tone in two of the meditations, striking an appropriately personal note in ‘Christ, my beloved’, where the tender part-writing is a pleasure to hear.

Gramophone – Adrian Edwards

An Audiophilia Star Recording

Chilcott is a long time favourite of English choral music fans. A member of King’s College Choir in the 60s to a member of the wonderful The King’s Singers and on to composer, consultant and choir director.

Chilcott’s style is melodic and harmonious. Very accessible. Not an Eric Whitacre clone, but you get the idea. He’s not afraid of large scale works — his Requiem has become mainstream repertoire and I would think the same will happen to his new St. John Passion.

What he’s produced is a superb piece of musical drama. Using a small number of instrumentalists, vocal soloists, choir and organ, he weaves a magical spell within the framework of the Passiontide setting and story, but adding his own chorales/hymns with English descants, fine solos and wonderful ensemble in the large scale pieces.

The results are very moving. Whether you are a fan of Bach’s or Penderecki’s Passions, you’ll enjoy the simple gifts of Chilcott’s.

The performance given by the work’s dedicatees and the recording, would seem definitive. They are exceptional. And how beautiful it is to hear the men and boys of the Wells Cathedral Choir sing the glory of the English Choral Tradition from the heights. Very highly recommended.

Audiophilia – Anthony Kershaw

For many years a distinguished Evangelist in the Bach Passions, and steeped in sacred music both as a singer and composer of it, Bob Chilcott created for Wells in 2013 a Passion for modern forces and audience, and triple-layered, John’s dramatised account of the Crucifixion punctuated by choral meditations and five new settings of traditional Eastertide hymns.

These, surprisingly Chilcott’s first venture into that genre, despite his large choral output, clearly have a life of their own ahead, and prove the devil does not have all the best tunes. The roles of Christ (Neal Davies), the Evangelist (Ed Lyon) and Pilate (Darren Jeffrey) are richly accompanied by their own signature instruments.

The Independent on Sunday, Claudia Pritchard

Bob Chilcott’s setting of the St John Passion received its first performance on Palm Sunday 2013 as a liturgical service – in place of Evensong. That première was given in Wells Cathedral by Matthew Owens and the Cathedral Choir for whom it was written. I was present to review the performance for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. Now, some two years later, a recording has arrived – fittingly, the disc dropped through my letterbox on Ash Wednesday as the season of Lent began.

In a note written for the first performance and now reprinted in the booklet accompanying this CD the composer said that he has had the good fortune to sing the role of the Evangelist in both of Bach’s Passion settings on several occasions in the past. He also retains vivid memories of singing Renaissance Passion settings during his time as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. “It is the austerity, the agony and ultimately the grace of this story that has inspired me to write this piece”, he says.

It’s relevant to detail the texts that Chilcott has selected and interwoven to form this Passion setting. For the Gospel narrative itself he has chosen the translation of St. John’s Gospel which is found in the King James Bible. The majestic, if archaic language imparts a poetry and rhythm to the work which contrasts with and complements the relatively simple musical style. I find that it’s a very satisfying blend of old words and new music. Instead of the recitative narration that we encounter in the Bach Passions Chilcott employs an arioso style of writing; this allows him a degree of expressiveness, which is especially important in the later stretches of the work, and it also gives the music something of an English feel.

The narrative is punctuated in two different ways. There are four reflective meditations sung by the choir, sometimes joined by the soprano soloist. These meditations set English poems dating from the sixteenth century or earlier. As with the choice of the King James Bible text the selection of these old-world texts is effective. In addition to these meditations Chilcott adds further reflection on the Gospel text through the use of hymns, in much the same way that Bach used chorales in which the Lutheran congregation joined, Chilcott uses five well-known Passiontide hymns, including There is a green hill far away and When I survey the wondrous cross. In this he follows the example of Stainer’s Crucifixion. However, unlike Stainer Chilcott has written his own hymn tunes. These new tunes are not complicated but they’re highly effective and at the first performance I found them very easy to pick up, which is ideal for congregational use. For these hymns two choirs connected with Wells Cathedral act as the congregation.

The principal male singers are accompanied by a small instrumental group consisting of viola, cello, brass quintet, timpani and organ. The two stringed instruments accompany the tenor Evangelist, Pilate is partnered by two trumpets and Christ by the three lower brass instruments and organ. Those different instrumental colourings and textures seem to me to work very well. In particular, the instruments accompanying Christ impart a becoming gravitas to his music. The strings sometimes provide mellifluous, very English-sounding accompaniment to the Evangelist’s more lyrical passages yet impart astringency at more dramatic points in the score, especially in the Judgement Hall scene, which is divided into two parts.

The music itself is direct and essentially simple in character. As the work unfolds you find various motifs or short phrases recurring. All of this engages the listener’s attention. Initially the Evangelist’s narration is set to lyrical music in a recognisably English style. Once the drama moves to the Judgement Hall and the involvement of Pilate the parts for the two stringed instruments include a lot of ostinato-like rhythms. This emphasises the increasing urgency and starkness of the story and the Evangelist’s music becomes correspondingly urgent. Midway through the 12th movement, ‘Jesus is crucified’ the narration takes on a wholly new tone. Ushered in by a melancholy cello solo, the Evangelist relates how Christ is handed over for crucifixion and the writing for the tenor becomes sorrowful and very moving. It is in this vein that the Evangelist’s part continues for the remainder of the score and Ed Lyon finds just the right degree of eloquence, singing the music in an affecting way but without any suspicion of affectation. This sets the seal on a very good performance. Throughout the work I appreciated his clear tone and diction and the understanding way in which he inflects the text.

The other principal soloist is the soprano Laurie Ashworth who, like Lyon sang in the first performance. On that occasion she impressed me and I’m delighted to hear her again. Her solos are delivered with lovely tone; there’s a very pleasing warmth to her voice but above all it’s the clarity and purity of her sound and diction that make her so effective. Her voice suits this music beautifully – did Chilcott write the part with her voice in mind, I wonder?

Most of the performers took part in the first performance but for this recording Darren Jeffery and Neal Davies have been brought in to sing the roles of Pilate and Christ respectively. Both do very well. Other smaller roles are taken by members of the Cathedral Choir.

The Wells Cathedral Choir makes a fine contribution. In particular I liked the sound of the treble line, which is sung by boy and girl choristers. This seems to me an excellent combination because the natural edge of the boys’ voices and the rather rounder soprano tone combine most effectively. Under Matthew Owens’ leadership the Wells choir has established a well-deserved high reputation and this recording is another success for the choir. They display energy and bite when taking the part of the crowd in the Judgement scenes. In the meditations they sing with finesse. The singers are most effectively supported by the instrumentalists and Matthew Owens brings everything together under his guiding hand. I’m sure Bob Chilcott will have been thrilled to find the first recording of this score done with such evident commitment and skill from all concerned.

When I reviewed the first performance of the St John Passion the piece was, of course, completely new to me. At the time I expressed the view that this is a successful and most impressive piece in which the musical ideas are accessible and make a strong appeal to the listener and, I’m sure, to the performers. This compact work, tells the Passion story effectively yet directly and succinctly, and Chilcott’s music is worthy of the subject. Returning to it now and having the opportunity for repeated listening while following in the score has in no way changed those initial opinions; rather they’ve been reinforced. This is an appealing, sincere and expertly crafted score and hearing it again in this very fine recording has moved me as much as that first performance.

The recorded sound is excellent: perhaps we should not be surprised at that since the highly experienced team of Mike Hatch (engineer) and Adrian Peacock (producer) is responsible. There’s a thoughtful and very good booklet essay by Andrew Stewart.

Musicweb International, John Quinn

Following on from their excellent recording of Chilcott’s Requiem, Matthew Owens and the Wells Cathedral Choir have now set down the composer’s St John Passion, which they premiered in 2013. Chilcott takes Bach’s example as his model, though not without developing and adjusting it. Lasting for around an hour, Chilcott’s Passion setting takes his narrative from the King James Bible, allocating a tenor Evangelist (here, the excellent and vivid Ed Lyon) with the story not in secco recitative but a more flowing arioso manner mainly supported by lower strings; Christ and Pilate feature as in Bach, as do the choir as soldiers, crowd, and so on. Bach’s chorales are replaced by the words of five familiar Anglican hymns but set to new melodies by Chilcott. And Chilcott interpolates four ‘meditations’ (his equivalent to Bach’s arias) using late medieval and renaissance texts. The results are powerful and compelling, the more so in this authoritative performance, with uniformly excellent soloists and the sensitive organ playing of Jonathan Vaughn. Chilcott’s empathy with text and meaning are in evidence throughout, the musical and theatrical styles accessible and the composer’s deeply humane responses to the crucifixion story moving. On the evidence of this fine recording, Chilcott’s St John Passion will connect with audiences and performers.

Choir and Organ, Philip Reed

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