Following on from their previous successes this academic year, this evening – the Dunelm Consort’s second Epiphany term performance – took place in the wholly appropriate and very atmospheric setting of Durham Castle’s Great Hall. Featuring guest soloists Ruairi Bowen, Gareth Thomas and Florian Störtz, alongside soloists from within the consort.

The passion opened with a clear and articulated choral entry at the beginning of the first chorus. The throbbing orchestral dynamics accentuate the suspensions and support the sense of unfolding in this opening chorus. Particularly moving are the chorus entries on the word ‘herr’ with a very bright vocal timbre piercing through the orchestra. Although there is some slowing with the chorus falling slightly behind on occasion, the overall balance and sense of line here is sublime in all parts. Guest soloist Ruairi Bowen performs the role of evangelist, with an opening recitative featuring very impressive diction, accuracy, and agility. The extremes of register in these recitative sections are very easily navigated. After this, there is an energetic and fast-paced section of the scene of Jesus’ betrayal. A climactic point is the chorus in its interjection Jesus von Nazareth, which is energetic in the vocal parts, with a highly accurate contrapuntal texture in the orchestra that accentuates the chaos and anger of many voices in the crowd. Bass soloist Gareth Thomas, who performs the role of Chrisus, demonstrates a meaningful delivery of the text in these sections of dialogue, with a great deal of intensity. The chorale in this section features some surprising chromaticism which is rendered well and a great balance is achieved with the florid bassline slightly predominant. Mr Bowen’s recitative section recalling the apostle Peter’s anger is full of consonant energy and this is markedly contrasting with the effortless sense of his less weighty material. Bach’s highly emotive recitative-writing, with its chromaticism and word-painting, is very faithfully rendered by both soloists.

Countertenor soloist Lewis Cullen shows off some agile scalic movement and also a ringing upper register in the aria ‘Von den Stricken’. Countermelodies in the oboes and bassoon run alongside the exciting orchestral bassline, creating a rich but not dense supporting texture to underpin Cullen’s very expressive lower-register material in the latter half of this aria. Following this, Soprano soloist and consort member Hannah Cox showed off a flawless lower register in the aria ‘Ich Folge’, working in counterpoint with a obbligato flute which often took up parts of her main theme. Her sense of line and phrase extended across extremes of register, even where the leaps would appear to make this difficult. The da capo where the introductory material returns is full of joyful character, and is not just treated as a plain repeat. After this section of recitative, the chorale, ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ offers some very clear diction from the choir, and orchestral accompaniment is more restrained here so that the text can be more easily comprehended. In the second half of this chorale the vocal entry is tender but not tentative, and the performers are singing much more out of their copies here. This reflective chorale contrasts with the urgency of the chorus following, where the crowd’s urgent commands are reflected in the agile upper voices. The counterpoint is very expressive here and the swapping between sustained pitches and great runs is shared with the orchestra. Leaps and swelling dynamics make the next evangelist recitative especially sorrowful, alongside the highly-emphasised melisma on the word ‘Weinete’ (weeping).

Tenor David Booer navigates some difficult intervals and lots very fast quaver movement in his aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’. The accompanying strings play a very ornamented version of the vocal melody, and there is great accuracy of pulse throughout. Mr Booer’s vigorous but accurate interpretation drives through to the conclusion of this aria and, despite a small slip in the strings at the end, overall it conveys a sense of deep grief and is very accurate. The final chorale of this half is profound, with regular phrases that grow in volume until the final line (‘quieten my conscience’) and despite being stuck to their copies somewhat here, the chorus is compelling at the very end. Director Jonathan Allsopp carefully controls the balance between orchestra and chorus in this chorale, and shapes the phrases. The whole ensemble visually enjoys the chromatic harmonies in this chorale.

The chorales in the remainder of the passion are noticeably known by the singers and sung in great unity with vocal parts rising to prominence in interesting passages. A falling 7th in the tenor is very prominent at the end of the chorale, ‘Ach großer König’. Soloist Florian Störtz (as Pilate) delivers a very moving arioso full of suspensions and falling figures, after which Mr Booer performs an aria which is vibrant and melismatic. Booer achieves dynamic contrast in his long, sustained notes, and the aria is accurate overall. In the ensuing dialogue, the chorus interjections are turbulent, with strings playing a fast-moving accompaniment. Mr Allsopp shapes both orchestral and choral forces well, giving thoughtful prominence to the choral sections when they hold the main subject. Störtz is increasingly dramatic in the ensuing recitatives, conveying Pilate’s sense of incredulity very well. His aria ‘Eilt, irh angefochten seelen’ features chorus interjections and clear staccato chords. Störtz’ lower register is impressive, with the melody across his range never losing its agitated mood.

In the following sections, there is some very pronounced and dramatic dialogue. Mr Thomas’s exclamation, ‘Es ist Vollbracht’ features a huge ritardando and the silence following it is used to great effect. The ensuing countertenor aria has a difficult transition to fast triple time, and Mr Cullen’s impressive conversation with the solo cello is also moving. The evangelist recitative section recalling the tearing of the temple veil features dramatic and complex orchestral movement. Dynamic swells in the sustained woodwind under the moving strings and throbbing bass recall this dramatic moment. A final aria from soprano Hannah Cox, ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’, is full of grief, in the long crescendos on the sustained notes, (particularly on the word honour in the da capo repeat). Leaping melismatic passages are well navigated without sacrificing an intentional sense of grief and distress. Accompanying parts are full of florid 10ths and 6ths in the woodwind.

The chorus in the closing section is very complex, with the strings and woodwind sharing a theme with the vocal parts, and a dramatic break-down of texture in the second half which lets the audience hear the bright sound of the sopranos and tenors as they reach the upper ends of their ranges. Although the strings come in somewhat early in the final chorale, the remainder of it is profound and purposeful. The continuo part and bass is well articulated and its sense of conclusion is made greater by the organ part’s expanded use of stops. A dense and full chord at the end also features a large ritardando to express the word ‘ewiglich’ (eternity).

At its conclusion, this performance demonstrated that the Dunelm Consort are capable of assembling and organising a large-scale oratorio to professional standards alongside preparing music for concert-based performances, all in a short space of time. Its members – both vocalists and instrumentalists – are involved in various music-making of the highest standard across the university and community, and the success of this evening’s performance demonstrates their professionalism in producing such high-quality on top of a packed diary of musical activity. Praise should go to conductor Jonathan Allsopp for his skilful direction, and to all the soloists for a moving and sincere performance. Allsopp will be departing at the end of this year to take up the post of organ scholar at Westminster Cathedral. Looking forward, it will be exciting to see how this ensemble will flourish next term and next year. Visit their website below for details of upcoming events: