‘A very Durham passion’: St John Passion at Durham Cathedral, in conversation with Pavlo Beznosiuk 

Durham Cathedral Choir and the Avison Ensemble join forces for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion at Durham Cathedral this Sunday, 14 April. We spoke with Pavlo Beznosiuk, leader of the period instrument orchestra for this performance, about the piece and his excitement to perform at Durham Cathedral.

Tickets for this performance are £8-28, available at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on/st-john-passion

What does the St John Passion Oratorio consist of and what is it about the piece that makes it so special?

The St John Passion, just like the more-performed and more-famous St Matthew Passion, were special commissions put together for Good Friday. These are large scale works centering around a narrator, the Evangelist, who sings in a form called ‘recitative’ a kind of sung speech. He tells the story of the passion of Christ quite simply, a narrative punctuated by a sequence of choruses, solo arias and chorales, what we might describe today as hymns. The arias are moments slightly outside the narrative where the events are meditated upon. For example the high tenor aria ‘Erwage’ is a sublime piece of music with silvery-toned muted violins and a viola da gamba, but the text describes how the body of Christ, having just been scourged, is literally a mess of blood and torn flesh. Such arias provide a moment for personal contemplation, against a backdrop of utterly sublime music.

There are also wonderfully dramatic choruses, for example when the rabble are clamouring for crucifixion. The chorales would have been moments where the congregation could join in. These were classic chorale tunes that they would have recognised, but here re-imagined, re-harmonised and re-orchestrated. This was real community music-making, such a buzzword in today’s world of grant applications and outreach projects, but nevertheless thriving back in the early 18th century. 

The Avison Ensemble, conducted by Daniel Cook at a previous performance at Durham Cathedral. Image: John Attle.

Tell us about Bach and his body of work. 

J.S Bach’s main role as Cantor of St. Thomas’s in Leipzig in 1723 was to train signers and provide music for every service and feast day, including special festivals. The body of work he created in response to that demand is beyond compare, a huge legacy that inspires us right up to this day. In a way Bach’s music is a ‘secret weapon’ of the church – anyone questioning or struggling with their faith couldn’t fail to be persuaded by the sheer emotional power of his creations, they appeal directly to the soul. 

What is it like performing in a space like Durham Cathedral, alongside Durham Cathedral Choir?

It is an absolute privilege to perform in such an amazing building. It is extraordinarily large. I remember wondering what people would feasibly be able to hear in such a vast space when I first played in the cathedral many years ago. But Daniel Cook, the Master of the Choristers and Organist at Durham Cathedral arranges the choir and the band in such a way that the music can project right down the whole of the Nave. He avoids the cavernous space underneath the tower, setting everything slightly forward and in such a space even a change of a foot or two can make a huge difference. Large spaces like that change the way you listen. In an era where so much music is consumed through headphones, it’s easy to get a distorted view of what music actually sounds like when it’s played live, without amplification or processing of any kind. So in a place like the cathedral it might take an audience just a couple of minutes to adjust, to recognise how the sound is reaching their eardrums and get comfortable with that and get used to a natural volume range.

Durham Cathedral Choir and the Avison Ensemble have collaborated several times for outstanding classical music concerts. Image: John Attle.

How has the experience been working with Daniel Cook and Durham Cathedral Choir?

We played the St John Passion with Daniel and the choir a year ago – our first collaboration. That was (I think) Daniel’s first major project with the choir having taken up his post only a few months before. Impressive as that was, the development of the choir on all levels when we joined them eight months later for Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was extraordinary. Daniel is clearly doing a fantastic job, building technique, spectrum of sound, the ensemble skills needed for complex fugal writing, and the confidence of the choir. It’s also lovely that he is not buying in starry soloists for our performance on Sunday, but using soloists from the choir, which is exactly as it would have been in Bach’s day. You’re lucky in Durham to have some extremely good singers in residence and it’s also great the way Daniel occasionally shines the spotlight on some very young and somewhat inexperienced members. This is what it’s all about, giving youngsters the opportunity to develop their skills and their love of music. It adds to the whole community-based nature of the performance and shouts ‘This is a Durham passion!’ 

“Daniel is clearly doing a fantastic job, building technique, spectrum of sound, the ensemble skills needed for complex fugal writing, and the confidence of the choir.”

How do you find contemporary audiences react to hearing period baroque music today?

Often if you utter the word ‘baroque’ to a lot of people they immediately think ‘highbrow, scholarly, academic, intellectual’ when in fact it just refers to a historical era whose music more often than not has a direct, visceral appeal and is very colourful. Just take the extraordinary opening chorus of the John Passion – low pulsing earth tremors in the bass section, upper strings burbling like lava and the anguished clashes of the wind instruments above, it could easily pass for a soundtrack for something like Game of Thrones. It’s very filmic stuff, deliberately so, in order to convey the drama of the events being depicted. Bach’s music is so intelligent, colourful and dramatic that I think it translates perfectly to a contemporary setting and audience. 

What instruments feature in the concert?

A mix of weird and wonderful instruments feature in St John Passion. For instance the oboe da caccia – a double-reed instrument most closely resembling the oboe but curved like a hunting horn, a wooden body covered in leather with a brass bell. It has an extraordinary woody and animal quality. Two of these are played during one of the most poignant arias accompanying a sublime ethereal flute line, it’s one of the highlights of the whole piece.

Daniel Cook, Master of the Choristers and Organist of Durham Cathedral, conducts Durham Cathedral Choir and the Avison Ensemble. Image: John Attle.

And the acoustics of baroque instruments in a place like Durham Cathedral must be like nothing else?

Well the space is indeed amazing but it’s also very large. One might think that you have to just play harder and louder in such an acoustic but actually you find over and over that the grittiness of baroque instruments actually projects incredibly well in such spaces. I’ve played solo baroque violin in the Royal Albert Hall and even there it was possible to project just by dint of the instrument’s granular sound. So there are actually advantages to the often perceived drawbacks of so-called primitive instruments.

And if you could sum up the concert in two sentences?

The wide palette of colours that Bach elicits from choir, soloists and orchestra is extraordinary, and these come to life during the St. John Passion. He was nothing short of a genius. 

How would you describe the music of Bach’s St John Passion, and are you coming to this performance? Let us know in the comments.

Tickets for this performance are £8-28, available at www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/whats-on/st-john-passion

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