Stephen Layton was responsible for the memorable Mass in B minor, presented by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as its 2012 Choral Masterpiece concert.

On Thursday, the English conductor returned, once more for Bach, with a St John Passion that was both inspired and inspiring.

Layton spoke briefly afterwards of the rewards of working with a line-up of hand-picked soloists and the need to vitalise this Baroque music by not being afraid to channel the spirits of Bartok and Stravinsky.

He talked of the universality of the work's spiritual message; its opening chorus was as much about living in the turbulent, difficult world of 2014 as being in the Garden of Gethsemane all those centuries ago.


From the start, it had been a night of intense drama, especially when, in that first chorus, the APO surged in a mighty crescendo to introduce the jubilant University of Auckland Chamber Choir.

Grouped in a semicircle around a smallish orchestra of impeccable musicianship, the young singers propelled the dramatic Passion story; Bach's many chorales were beautifully dispensed, phrases often delineated with just the slightest catch of breath.

English tenor Nicholas Mulroy sang from memory as the Evangelist. He outlined the piece's sorrowful trajectory with a remarkable range of emotions, in perfect concord with cellist Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismark and James Tibbles on chamber organ.

Mulroy also took on the tenor arias, poignantly singing of Christ's bloodstained back being transformed into a rainbow of redemption. Paul Whelan's resonantly voiced Jesus combined authority with unswerving humanity. His final "It is accomplished" led to a transcendent "Es ist vollbracht," shared by countertenor Christopher Lowrey and the exemplary Laura Vaughan on viola da gamba.

The American Lowrey came with glowing credentials from the European opera and early music circuit; they proved to be fully justified.

Bass-baritone Derek Welton's sympathetic portrayal of Pilate brought the man's dilemmas into a world that many of us know, while fellow-Australian Siobhan Stagg made exquisite music out of Bach's vocally testing soprano arias.

The ultimate triumph, however, must lie with the orchestra that so proudly carries our city's name through the whole country and beyond.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewer: William Dart