Rcmco/Schreier | St John's, Smith Square, London

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The Independent Culture

For years, the only singing you'd hear from conductors was from the rostrum during rehearsal. OK, there were exceptions. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Plácido Domingo have both achieved modest success in the field: but do they actually sing and conduct at the same time? José Cura apparently did while recording arias with the Philharmonia and on Friday night the distinguished German tenor Peter Schreier put the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra through their paces while declaiming the Evangelist in Bach's St John Passion.

It was an extraordinary display for a man in his sixty-fifth yearSchreier faced the orchestra with his back to the chorus. His gestures were fluent, expressive and incredibly precise. Even before singing, he would focus his gaze on an individual player, tracing the shape of a phrase with the utmost care.

In the opening chorus "Herr, unser, Herrscher" he signalled a diminuendo with the palm of his hand (as for the word "unser"), settling on a particular word and bringing out salient inner lines. By turning this way or that Schreier managed to keep tabs on both the chorus and players, though I thought the lower instrumental lines rather over-emphatic - especially in the impatient first chorus, where plangent woodwinds and aerial strings should take the lead.

As a singer, Schreier is still in fine form. His voice retains a mellifluous "middle" with only a slight reduction of sustaining powers at the high end.He acts the "role" of Evangelist like a pulpit Siegfried. At the point in part one, where Jesus's disciples "fell to the ground", he injected a sudden spring to his phrasing, then as Jesus himself asks "Whom seek ye?" and the chorus answers, he pushed hard and fast, eager to keep the drama alive. A little later, when the cock crows betrayal, he sung - no, shouted - the words "krähete der Hahn" as if personally affronted.

Jonathan Lemalu's Jesus exhibited nobility and vocal warmth though, heard next to Schreier's seasoned zeal, it seemed just a little short on conviction. The arias and solos were sung with varying degrees of excellence by members of Paul Spicer's Royal College of Music Choir while the chorales were swift and light in texture. Occasionally one felt that a few extra rehearsals might have transformed a brave effort into a priceless experience. However, it was an invigorating St John Passion, with no obvious longueurs and a sense of forward momentum that is rare, even in fully professional performances.

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