Bach Musica was brave launching this year's season with Bach's St John Passion, with the same work coming up as Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's annual Choral Classic in August.

On Sunday, before a solid and appreciative audience, Bach's opening chorus augured well.

Male voices could have exhibited a little more vocal spine but Rita Paczian caught the flow and inevitability of the piece, with woodwind players making the most of tangy dissonances. There were some choral shortcomings to come, when the 80 minutes of the Second Part tested stamina.

One of Bach's most effective dramatic touches - the women crying "Whither" in the bass' "Hurry, you troubled souls" - was somewhat diluted by insecure pitching.


More positively, Paczian showed her skill in characterising the many short and punchy interjections that the chorus makes during the grim narrative. The slippery chromaticisms when they claim that no one will be put to death were shivery in their conviction, as was the dark irony of their dance-like greeting to Christ as "Dear King of the Jews".

The many chorales, finely balanced on the vocal side, were models of considered crispness.

Bach Musica can also be proud of incorporating two violas d'amore and viola da gamba to add crucial colour to David Griffiths' poignant Observe my Soul.

David Hamilton was the usual reliable Evangelist, underlining text and meaning to the point of verging on the expressionistic at the mention of bitter weeping.

The singing of Bach arias, however, demands a special musicianship. Just as complex prose must be carefully pointed when read aloud, so too do this composer's often tortuous lines need to be conveyed with utter naturalness. Too often one was too conscious of the thought processes behind soloists trying to achieve this goal.

This was certainly not so with countertenor Stephen Diaz who had conviction, energy and blended well with the orchestra. His blazing account of the triumph of Judah was just that.

While Jared Holt did not always convey the warmth and humanity of Christ's sayings, soprano Georgia Jamieson Emms was a disappointment, with her smallish and sometimes nervous voice making lamentably little of some of Bach's loveliest arias.

What: Bach Musica
Where: Auckland Town Hall